Sunday, January 29, 2017
The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 4 (the rest of the “circumcision letters”; 1 & 2 Peter, Jude; Hebrews; 1 John)
The rest of the “circumcision letters” considered
In the last section we saw that Christ’s teaching concerning the nature of the righteousness required for salvation – which is a righteousness that is relative rather than absolute (depending on both faith and righteous conduct) - was the view affirmed in the Hebrew Scriptures. We’ve also seen that the same doctrine is implicit in what Christ declared to the seven ecclesias referred to in the book of Revelation, and that the salvation of these Israelites is based on both faith and works, rather than “faith only.” This tells us that the Pauline teaching concerning justification (as explicitly affirmed by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Galatians) cannot be understood as being applicable to them. Instead, the conditions according to which those living during Christ’s earthly ministry could be saved are the same conditions according to which the Israelites living at the time of these seven ecclesias can be saved. The righteousness by which they will be worthy of life in the eons to come will be based on both their faith and their works.
But what about those believing Israelites addressed in the other “circumcision letters?” What were the stated or implied conditions by which the Jewish recipients of these letters could be righteous and thus worthy of eonian life? Was the righteousness necessary for their being saved a relative righteousness, and their salvation thus based on faith in conjunction with righteous conduct? Or is there evidence that their eonian salvation was based on the absolute “righteousness of God” that is through Christ’s faith, when he died for our sins?
It must be emphasized that the only epistles in the Greek scriptures in which the righteousness of God that is through Christ’s faith (and which is received by us by faith, apart from works) is even explicitly referred to and affirmed are letters that were written by Paul to those in the body of Christ. The rest of the letters making up the Greek scriptures make absolutely no mention of this. It is necessary to emphasize this point in response to an objection raised by Frank in our discussion. According to Frank, since Paul stressed the importance of good works and righteous conduct in his letters, an emphasis on this in other letters (such as 1 John or Hebrews, for example) cannot be seen as implying that those addressed in these other letters weren’t justified by faith apart from works.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that, despite Paul’s emphasis on good works and appropriate conduct for the saints, he was equally clear with regards to the fact that such righteous works were not the basis on which those to whom he wrote had been saved, or by which they were qualified for eonian life (Titus 3:4-7). When we take into account everything Paul wrote to those in the body of Christ, we find that the righteousness that was connected with righteous, God-honoring conduct by the saints was not the same righteousness of God that is through Christ’s faith, and which the believer receives by his or her faith in Paul’s evangel. But we find no such distinction made anywhere else in any of the other writings comprising the Greek scriptures. Instead, the only sort of justification or righteousness referred to in these other letters is one that is based on the faith and righteous conduct of those to whom the letters were addressed.
The letters of Peter and Jude
Frank does not actually appeal to anything written by Peter or Jude in support of his view, so we won’t be spending much time examining the content of their letters. What really needs to be emphasized concerning these letters is the reason that they can’t be appealed to in support of Frank’s view: like all of the “circumcision letters,” there is nothing said in them about justification by faith apart from works, or about a “righteousness of God through Jesus Christ’s faith.”
While it’s clear from these letters (especially Peter’s) that faith was understood as essential to the salvation of those addressed, this is (as we’ve seen) perfectly consistent with what James affirmed in his letter, as well as with what Christ taught during his earthly ministry. Faith has always been necessary for the salvation of those under the law and in covenant with God; apart from it, there was no pleasing God. Peter and Jude are conspicuously silent, however, concerning any sort of righteousness or “just” status that a person could have other than the sort of righteousness referred to throughout the Hebrew scriptures (1 Peter 3:12; 4:18; 2 Pet. 2:5, 7-8).
Some other striking differences between what Paul wrote to those in the body of Christ and what Peter and Jude wrote are as follows:
1. According to Peter, water baptism was a matter of salvation (1 Pet. 3:20-21; cf. Mark 16:16). What Peter wrote concerning the saving nature of baptism in his letter is perfectly consistent with what he declared to Israelites in Acts 2:38-40, when he made known to them the evangel of the circumcision. In these verses, it is clear that Peter understood water baptism to be essential to (although certainly not sufficient for) being pardoned of one’s sins. In contrast with what Peter declared and wrote, Paul learned early in his ministry as the apostle of the nations that water baptism was not necessary for salvation, and that Christ had not commissioned him “to be baptizing but to be bringing the evangel” (1 Cor. 1:17). With regards to Paul’s ministry and administration, the only baptism that mattered for those to whom he wrote was the baptism “in one spirit,” by which they had become members of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13; cf. Gal. 3:27-28; Rom. 6:3-6ff.; Eph. 4:1-5; Col. 2:12).
2. Even when Christ’s suffering and death is in view in Peter’s first letter, the emphasis - without exception - is on the example that Christ set for those to whom Peter wrote, and the positive change it had (and should continue to have) on their conduct (1 Pet. 1:14-18; 2:20-25; 3:13-18). There is no indication anywhere in the letters of Peter or Jude that Christ’s death had the same significance for them or the believing Israelites to whom they wrote as it had for Paul and those in the body of Christ.
3. The eonian salvation of those to whom Peter wrote was (from their perspective at least) conditional, for they had to “endeavor through ideal acts to confirm [their] calling and choice” (2 Pet. 1:10). Only in doing so would they “under no circumstances be tripping at any time,” and would, consequently, be “richly supplied” an “entrance into the eonian kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 11). In other words, the “calling and choice” of those to whom Peter wrote was something of which they could have continual assurance only by their faithfulness in doing good works, or “ideal acts.” But for those who have been called by God through the evangel Paul heralded among the nations (and have thus become members of the body of Christ), our future glorification can be anticipated with just as much certainty as the occurrence of the snatching away itself (Rom 8:29-30).
4. Peter also described the believers to whom he wrote as those who had come to “the recognition of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:8), and who were consequently “fleeing from the corruption which is in the world by lust” (2 Pet. 1:4). But later in this same letter, Peter wrote that for those who, after having fled “from the defilements of the world by the recognition of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” became yet again “involved” in these “defilements,” the following would then be true of them: “their last state has become worse than the first” (2 Pet. 2:20). Peter went on to warn, “For it were better for them not to have recognized the way of righteousness, than, recognizing it, to go back to what was behind, from the holy precept given to them” (v. 21). Again, Peter is referring to those who, in their “first state,” could be characterized as believers, for they had come to “a recognition of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (which was true of all who believed the “evangel of the Circumcision” heralded by Peter). But for those who have been justified through the faith of Christ and received the righteousness of God, it could never be the case that our “last state” could be worse than the state we were in before we were justified.
5. Those to whom Jude wrote were exhorted to “keep [themselves] in the love of God, anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ for life eonian” (v. 21). Here, the receiving of eonian life is not only understood as involving the (future) mercy of Christ at his coming, but it’s implied that this mercy was for those who kept themselves in the love of God. In other words, remaining in “the love of God” was something that depended on the present and future conduct of those to whom Jude wrote. In contrast with this, we find in Romans 8:31-39 that, for we who have been justified by God on the basis of Christ’s faith, nothing can condemn us or “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
The letter to the Hebrews
The letter to the Hebrews came up frequently in my discussion with Frank, so among the “circumcision letters,” it will receive the most attention in this article. Frank claimed that, for both the members of the body of Christ to whom Paul wrote and the believing Hebrews to whom the author of this letter wrote, the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works was “milk doctrine” – i.e., it was a doctrine that was considered rudimentary or foundational, and in which one needed to grasp and be grounded before they could go on to spiritual maturity (rather than remaining a “minor” in Christ). However, the author of the letter to the Hebrews actually referred to doctrines that he considered “milk” (as opposed to “solid nourishment”) and “foundational,” and – significantly - the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works is not mentioned as one of them (Heb. 5:11-6:3). Instead, we find “repentance from dead works,” “faith on God,” the “teaching of baptizings,” the “imposition of hands,” the “resurrection of the dead,” and “judgment eonian.” It was these doctrines that were considered by the author “rudimentary elements of the oracles of God” and the “rudiments of Christ” in which those to whom he wrote had to be grounded before they could “be brought to maturity.”
Immediately following this passage concerning “milk doctrine,” the author went on to write the following to the Hebrew recipients of his letter:
“For it is impossible for those once enlightened, besides tasting the celestial gratuity and becoming partakers of holy spirit, and tasting the ideal declaration of God, besides the powerful deeds of the impending eon, and falling aside, to be renewing them again to repentance while crucifying for themselves the Son of God again and holding Him up to infamy. For land which is drinking the shower coming often on it, and bringing forth herbage fit for those because of whom it is being farmed also, is partaking of blessing from God; yet, bringing forth thorns and star thistles, it is disqualified and near a curse, whose consummation is burning.
The author then “switches gears” from fearful warning to encouraging exhortation:
“Yet we are persuaded of better things concerning you, beloved, and those which have to do with salvation, even if we are speaking thus. For God is not unjust, to be forgetting [your faith? No, but rather] your work and the love which you display for His name when you serve the saints, and are serving. Now we are yearning for each one of you to be displaying the same diligence toward the assurance of the expectation until the consummation, that you may not be becoming dull. Now be imitators of those who through faith and patience are enjoying the allotment of the promises.”
Although the author follows his words of doom with words of hope, even his encouragement presupposed that the future salvation of those to whom he wrote - those who had been “enlightened” (cf. Heb. 10:32) - depended on their “work and the love which [they] display for His name when [they] serve the saints, and are serving” (which is precisely the kind of faith-perfecting works of love that James had in mind in chapter 2 of his letter). As if this doesn’t make it clear enough that their future salvation was based on works done in faith and not “faith only,” we find that their “assurance of the expectation” (i.e., enjoying the allotment of the promises) required “displaying the same diligence toward the assurance of the expectation until the consummation” (v. 11). And, from the context, it’s evident that this “diligence” involved doing the things which the author described in v. 10 (which, of course, involved works of love and not “faith only”).
In other words, those to whom the author wrote could have assurance that they would be saved at the consummation (i.e., at the return of Christ) if they faithfully continued doing what they had been doing – which meant being “imitators of those who through faith and patience are enjoying the allotment of the promises” (v. 12). Their enjoying the allotment of the promises was not by faith only. Rather, it was “through faith and patience.” But what was the author referring to by the word “patience” here (or, we might ask, “patience doing what?”)? Again, the context makes it clear what this “patience” referred to: “…displaying the same diligence toward the assurance of the expectation until the consummation.” If they were to be saved at the consummation, their faith required works just as their works required faith.
This is consistent with what the author had written just a chapter before (after noting that Christ “learned obedience from that which He suffered”): “And being perfected, [Christ] became the cause of eonian salvation to all who are obeying Him…” (Heb. 5:8-9). The eonian salvation that these believing Israelites hoped to enjoy at Christ’s return was one that required their obedience – which, of course, is consistent with what Christ taught during his earthly ministry, as well as with what he declared to the seven ecclesias of Revelation. For those to whom the author wrote, “holiness” was a status or condition that was not only required for their salvation (for we’re told that “no one shall be seeing the Lord” apart from it), but it was something that they had to “pursue” (Heb. 12:14) – the implication being that, if they weren’t pursuing holiness (through obedience), they wouldn’t “be seeing the Lord.”
Another glaring example of the difference between the nature and means of eonian salvation for the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews and those in the body of Christ can be found in Hebrews 10:24-31. There, the author wrote:
“And we may be considering one another to incite to love and ideal acts, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves, according as the custom of some is, but entreating, and so much rather as you are observing the day drawing near. For at our sinning voluntarily after obtaining the recognition of the truth, it is no longer leaving a sacrifice concerned with sins, but a certain fearful waiting for judging and fiery jealousy, about to be eating the hostile. Anyone repudiating Moses' law is dying without pity on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, are you supposing, will he be counted worthy who tramples on the Son of God, and deems the blood of the covenant by which he is hallowed contaminating, and outrages the spirit of grace? For we are acquainted with Him Who is saying, Mine is vengeance! I will repay! the Lord is saying, and again, "The Lord will be judging His people." Fearful is it to be falling into the hands of the living God!”
In this somewhat lengthy passage, the author is warning the believing Israelites to whom he wrote – those who’d obtained the “recognition of the truth” and been hallowed by the blood of Christ - of the possibility of suffering an even worse punishment than that which was inflicted upon those who repudiated Moses’ law (compare this with the author’s warning in Heb. 12:25). The author goes on to refer to this “much worse punishment” as “destruction,” and contrasts it with the salvation (the “procuring of the soul”) that the Hebrews hoped to receive at the coming/arriving of Christ (see Heb 10:35-39 and compare with 1 Pet. 1:3-9). Given that the salvation in view is that which will be received when Christ arrives and “is seen a second time” (Heb. 9:28), and the “punishment” and “vengeance” of which the author wrote is contrasted with this salvation, we can reasonably conclude that the author had in view the vengeance of God that will be poured out on unbelieving Jews and gentiles alike during the “day of the Lord.”
But regardless of when, exactly, the Israelites addressed in this letter believed this “much worse punishment” and “vengeance” would be suffered by those “falling into the hands of the living God,” it is simply not possible to reconcile these words of warning and exhortation with Paul’s words to the body of Christ in Romans 5:9 and 8:1, or with what he wrote in 1 Thess. 1:10 and 4:9-11. If these Israelites had been justified by faith apart from works (as is the case for all in the body of Christ), why were these believing Israelites being warned/exhorted to avoid doing that which would expose them to the vengeance and judgment of God that unbelievers will suffer before and during the time of Christ’s return, as if they could (by doing what the author exhorted them not to do) forfeit the eonian salvation they hoped to receive at the unveiling of Christ?
In an attempt to support his view that what the author of Hebrews wrote was consistent with everything Paul wrote concerning justification by faith apart from works (meaning that no works or obedience was required for the salvation of the Israelites to whom this letter was written), Frank wrote: “Hebrews chapter three and four uses a beautiful analogy of God resting from His works on the seventh day. This is to illustrate to the Hebrews that Christ brings them to the same rest. It does not however mean that they will not be displaying righteous acts.” Frank’s argument seems to be that the “rest” (or “stopping”) which the author had in view figuratively represents justification apart from works, or being justified by faith alone. However, the author does not once say that those to whom he wrote had been justified by faith apart from works, or mention anything at all about justification or righteousness apart from works.
Even in chapter 11 where faith is emphasized, the emphasis is not on “faith only” but on what certain notable people of faith had done “by faith.” Noah, for example, is said to have become “an enjoyer of the allotment of the righteousness which accords with faith” because of what he did by faith (Heb 11:7). Although Noah’s righteousness was “in accord with” faith, it wasn’t based on “faith only,” but on what he did by faith (i.e., construct an ark). This faith-based obedience is the source of the righteousness of those to whom the author of Hebrews wrote, and it is the same sort of righteousness of which James wrote to the twelve tribes. Everything the author of Hebrews wrote is perfectly consistent with what James taught in his letter, and which Christ taught during his earthly ministry.
A better (and, I think, more contextually informed) understanding is that the “rest” or “stopping” referred to by the author of Hebrews simply refers to the “allotment of salvation” and “eonian salvation” to which the author referred several times in the letter, and which those to whom he wrote hoped to enjoy at “the consummation” (Heb. 3:6, 12-15) – i.e., their entering into their “eonian enjoyment of the allotment” (Heb. 9:15) at Christ’s return. It is only THEN – i.e., when Christ “is seen a second time by those awaiting Him” (Heb. 9:28) that the exhortations and warnings with which this letter abounds will no longer be needed for Israelites, because their eonian salvation will be an experienced reality rather than an expectation that requires their obedience, diligence, patience, endurance (etc.) “unto the consummation.” No longer will such diligence and patience in avoiding and “contending against sin” (12:4) be necessary for salvation, since they will have been saved and will be enjoying their deserved “rest” or “stopping.”
Until this time comes, the Jewish brethren to whom the author wrote had reason to “Beware, lest…anyone of you may be hardened by the seduction of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, that is, if we should be retaining the beginning of the assumption confirmed unto the consummation…” (Heb. 3:12-15). Their “rest” – which is also referred to as “a sabbatism” that is “left for the people of God” (4:9) – was not a present, fulfilled reality for them, but rather the future realization of their expectation.
Another objection raised by Frank in support of his position is that the Israelites to whom the author of Hebrews wrote were no longer under the old covenant; hence, keeping (or attempting to keep) God’s law – even as an expression of their faith - could not have been a requirement for their eonian salvation. With regards to the old covenant, Frank states that “[the author of Hebrews] emphatically declares” that the old covenant had been “done away.” Contrary to Frank’s assertion, nowhere does the author of Hebrews “emphatically declare the old covenant to be done away.” Of course, the author could have easily said this. But this he did not do. Rather than saying that the old covenant had been “done away,” he instead wrote that the old covenant was “GROWING old and decrepit” and was “NEAR its disappearance” (Heb. 8:13). Since this was true of the old covenant when the author wrote, it would not be true to say that it had already been “done away” by this time.
It’s true that the new covenant was “ratified” or “confirmed” by Christ through his death, but its fulfillment – when what God promised actually goes into effect and is “in force” for all with whom the promise was made - is still future. The future fulfillment of the new covenant is one of a number of things that Christ procured through his death, but which await future realization/fulfillment. The fulfillment of the new covenant will take place when Christ returns to rescue Israel, and brings an end to this present wicked eon (see Rom. 11:25-27).
The time between Christ’s death and his return to the earth is a “transitional” period for Israel, covenantally speaking. Again, even at the time the author of Hebrews wrote (which could’ve been close to forty years after the death of Christ), the old covenant wasn’t yet “done away with.” It was simply “growing old and decrepit” and was “near its disappearance.” It had not “disappeared” at that time, but it will disappear completely when Christ returns and “all Israel is saved.” Moreover, the “nearness” of the disappearance of the old covenant is consistent with the motif of “imminence” that runs throughout the Greek scriptures. James, for example, wrote that the “presence of the Lord is near” and “the Judge stands before the doors.” Peter wrote in his first letter, “Now the consummation of all is near.” Insofar as the nearness of Christ’s return was true then, the disappearance of the old covenant could be said to have been “near” as well, since it is at the consummation referred to by Peter (when the “Chief Shepherd is manifested”) that it will disappear and be replaced by the new covenant.
John’s first letter
In 1 John 1:6-9, we read:
“If we should be saying that we are having fellowship with Him and should be walking in darkness, we are lying and are not doing the truth. Yet if we should be walking in the light as He is in the light, we are having fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, is cleansing us from every sin. If we should be saying that we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we should be avowing our sins, He is faithful and just that He may be pardoning us our sins and should be cleansing us from all injustice.”
Notice how, according to John, one’s being cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus depended on one’s conduct – i.e., “walking in the light as he is in the light,” rather than “walking in darkness.” John and those to whom he wrote were being “cleansed from every sin” by Jesus’ blood if they were doing this. What did John mean by “walking in the light” rather than “in darkness?” In the next chapter it is clear that walking in the light involved “keeping his precepts,” “keeping his word” and thus “walking as he walks” (2:3-6). And to be doing this meant (or at least essentially included) “loving [one’s] brother,” rather than hating one’s brother (vv. 8-11), and “believing in the name of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ” (3:23-24). Only in keeping these precepts would those to whom John wrote be “remaining in the light” and not “walking in darkness.” Moreover, John explains that one of the reasons for writing was so “that [those to whom he wrote] may not be sinning” (2:1); however, when they did sin, they had to “avow” their sins so that their sins could be pardoned and “cleansed from all injustice.”
John went on to say that it was those who were “doing the will of God” who would be “remaining for the eon” – and, in the immediate context, doing the will of God evidently meant “not loving the world” or “that which is in the world” (1 John 2:15-17). In the larger context of John’s letter, “doing the will of God” involved “keeping [God’s] precepts” and “doing what is pleasing in his sight” (1 John 3:22-24). Only those who remained in Christ would not be “put to shame by him in his presence,” and those who remained in him were those who were “doing righteousness” and were “begotten of him” (2:28-29).
Concerning what it meant to be “remaining in Christ,” John went on to say: “…everyone who is remaining in [Christ] is not sinning...let no one deceive you. He who is doing righteousness is just, according as he is just. Yet he who is doing sin is of the Adversary…everyone who is not doing righteousness is not of God, and who is not loving his brother” (1 John 3:6-7). Thus, one’s “remaining for the eon” – i.e., having eonian life – required not just believing in the name of Christ (which, being the evangel of the circumcision, was essential), but also keeping his precepts and loving one’s brother (rather than “the world” and “that which is in the world”).
The only “just” status or standing of which John wrote in his letter is that which depended on the precept-keeping conduct of those to whom he wrote. John did not seem to be aware of any other “righteousness” that the recipients of his letter could have except that which was based on “doing righteousness” (which, again, meant “keeping [Christ’s] precepts,” “keeping his word” and “walking as He walks”). For John, it was because those to whom he wrote were keeping Christ’s precept to “be loving the brethren” that they were aware of having “proceeded out of death into life” (3:11-13).
The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 3 (Christ’s teaching on earth; Christ’s message to the seven ecclesias; the great white throne judgment)
Christ’s teaching on earth consistent with James and the Hebrew Scriptures
We find in Christ’s teaching to Israel during his earthly ministry perfect harmony with what James and the Hebrew Scriptures affirmed concerning human righteousness and how an Israelite was able to be just before God and worthy of salvation. What Christ affirmed (both implicitly and explicitly) concerning how people were justified and saved was, for thousands of years before his earthly ministry began, “the only game in town,” so to speak. This is not to say that no changes took place whatsoever after Christ began his earthly ministry; rather, the changes that did take place can be understood as being simply a continuation of (and a building upon) the “salvation program” that was already in place for Israel and the nations at that time.
At this time in history, it became the case that an Israelite’s faith in God could not be separated from faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:13-17) – became just as important as faith in Yahweh, the one God of Israel. This is made especially evident in John’s Gospel account, where one of the central themes of the book is that faith in Jesus as the Christ and Son of God is essential to having eonian life (John 20:30-31). Despite the emphasis in this book on believing that Jesus is the Son of God, it would be a mistake to think that, during Christ’s earthly ministry, “faith without works” was sufficient for an Israelite’s being righteous before God and worthy of an allotment in the kingdom during the eon to come. For Christ, the faith that was essential to an Israelite’s being righteous - and thus worthy of salvation - could not be separated from their conduct.
According to Christ, if an Israelite wanted to be saved and enter into the kingdom of God, their righteousness had to “super-abound” more than that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:20), and it’s clear from the immediate context that this involved doing the precepts of the law (vv. 17-19). This sort of “super-abounding” righteousness is clearly the same sort of righteousness referred to as having been possessed by men such as Noah, Daniel and Job (Ez. 14:14, 20).
Although the righteousness that made an Israelite worthy of entering into life in the eon to come undoubtedly involved the heart rather than the external conduct only (we find this point emphasized throughout Christ’s teaching), it’s also clear that an Israelite’s conduct was in no way irrelevant or unimportant to his being righteous. According to Christ, it was not “workers of lawlessness” but rather those who were “doing the will of [his Father] in the heavens” who would “be entering into the kingdom of the heavens” (Matt. 7:16-23; cf. vv. 24-27). When asked by a young man what one needed to be doing in order to have life eonian in the kingdom of God, Christ replied, “If you are wanting to be entering into life, keep the precepts” (Matt. 19:16-17). Christ went on to name five of the Ten Commandments, as well as what he considered the second of the two “greatest precepts” given to Israel: “You shall be loving your associate as yourself” (vv. 18-19; cf. Mark 12:29-34).
Christ also warned his disciples against being “snared” by the temptation to break one of these precepts with the following exhortation: “Now, if your right eye is snaring you, wrench it out and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body be cast into Gehenna. And if your hand should ever be snaring you, strike it off and cast it from you, for it is expedient for you that one of your members should perish and not your whole body pass away into Gehenna…It is ideal for you to be entering life maimed, rather than having two hands, to be cast into Gehenna…” (Matt. 5:27-30; Mark 9:42-48). For an Israelite to “save” or “find” his soul – i.e., be worthy of eonian life after Christ returns to set up his kingdom - he had to “renounce himself and pick up his cross and follow [Christ],” and be willing to have his soul “destroyed” during this lifetime on account of Christ and the evangel (Matt. 16:24-27; Mark 8:34-38). To be unwilling to do this (seeking instead to “save one’s soul”) was to “forfeit” and “destroy” one’s soul, with regards to being worthy to enjoy life in the eon to come.
According to Christ in his “Olivet Discourse” (which pertains to events that will be taking place during, and immediately after, the second half of the 70th heptad prophesied in Daniel), all believing Israelites who will be alive during the time of “great affliction” must remain “vigilant” (Luke 21:36), “watchful” (Matt. 24:42; 25:13), and “faithful” (25:21-23). They must avoid being “snared” and “deceived” (Matt. 24:4), and must “endure to the consummation” in order to be “saved” (Matt. 24:13). We know that the “consummation” Christ had in view in this verse refers to his coming in power and glory at the end of the eon, and that being “saved” means being worthy to stand before Christ at this time and to enter into life in the kingdom (Luke 21:28-31). And based on John’s words in Rev. 14:12, it can also be reasonably inferred that the “enduring” which Christ had in mind entailed “keeping the precepts of God and the faith of Jesus.”
According to Frank’s position, Christ’s death – from the moment that it took place - automatically changed everything for every person alive on earth at that time, with regards to how one was justified and saved. That is, Frank’s understanding was that the truth which Paul dispensed to those in the body of Christ concerning justification became, from the time of Christ’s death onward, a universally applicable and relevant truth that everyone alive on earth had to understand and grasp if they were to be saved and “be on board” with what God was doing. Frank’s position seems to assume or require that a new administration began when Christ died, and that everyone was, from that point on, expected to understand and believe what Paul affirmed in Romans and Galatians concerning justification.
Although Frank’s position seems to require this view, I see nothing in scripture that supports it. Even according to Frank’s position, we have absolutely no reason to think that, during almost the entire decade following Christ’s death and resurrection, any of Christ’s twelve apostles – Peter included - had any inkling whatsoever that anyone would, or even could, be justified by faith apart from works, and that this justification was based on the faith of Christ when he died for our sins. Their belief concerning the kind of righteousness required for salvation was in complete agreement with what James wrote in his letter to the twelve tribes. Their view on this subject underwent no change during this period of time, because there was no reason for it to. No new, paradigm-shattering revelation had come from Christ that challenged what they believed concerning the inseparable connection between faith, works, righteousness and salvation.
Christ’s message to the seven churches consistent with his teaching on earth
What we read in the Gospel accounts is, of course, very much in contrast with what Paul clearly taught concerning both the eonian expectation and the justification of those saints who, in his day, constituted the body of Christ. With regards to those in the body of Christ, no sin committed prior to our death – or prior to our being snatched away to meet Christ in the air - can possibly jeopardize our eonian salvation. This is because (as argued earlier) our justification is “through the faith of Christ Jesus,” and the righteousness to which this justification pertains is absolute rather than relative. Our faith does not have to “have works” in order for it to be living, saving faith, since it is not our faith that is the basis of our justification, but rather Christ’s faith.
Although a new administration was given to Paul and involves Jews and gentiles being justified through the faith of Christ, it needs to be emphasized that the “salvation program” according to which Israelites could be saved - and which Christ affirmed during his earthly ministry - did not terminate for Israel at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. Nor did it terminate when Paul’s administration began. What changed during the time period covered by Acts was not the termination of the old program of salvation for Israel, but rather the introduction of a new program of salvation at the start of Paul’s administration (which, from that point on, ran parallel with Israel’s “old” salvation program).
That the salvation program according to which Israelites could be saved during Christ’s earthly ministry did not terminate with Christ’s death and resurrection is evident from the post- ascension words of Christ himself. In the 2nd and 3rd chapters of the book of Revelation, we find Christ delivering messages to the “messengers” of seven different churches in Asia. Although I believe these churches will all exist at a future time (and were not in existence at the time John wrote Revelation), it should be noted that a fulfilled, “historical” interpretation of Revelation 2-3 (which views these churches as contemporaneous with John at the time he wrote) is equally consistent with the position being advanced in this article.
Regardless of whether these churches existed in John’s day or will exist at some future time, the point that needs to be emphasized is that Christ’s messages to these churches all presuppose the same view of salvation as that found in both the Gospel accounts and in James’ letter – i.e., one’s being worthy of life during the eons of Christ’s reign is dependent on both faith and works/conduct. From the perspective of the to whom Christ delivered the words in these chapters, their future salvation is not something that will come to pass irrespective of what they do and how they live; rather, to be worthy of having life in the kingdom during the eons of Christ’s reign will require continued obedience, diligence and faithfulness. And if they “stumble” in this regard, repentance will be absolutely necessary (followed, of course, by a commitment to doing what they were doing before they were in need of repentance). In short, their being saved at the consummation will require “conquering”:
“I am aware of your acts, and your toil, and your endurance…But I have against you that you leave your first love. Remember, then, whence you have fallen, and repent, and do the former acts. Yet if not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, if ever you should not be repenting…To the one who is conquering, I will be granting to be eating of the tree of life which is in the center of the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:2-7).
“Become faithful until death, and I shall be giving you the wreath of life…the one who is conquering will not be injured by the second death” (Rev. 2:10).
“I will give to each of you as your works deserve…the one who is conquering and who is keeping my acts until the consummation, to him will I be giving authority over the nations” (Rev. 2:23, 26-28).
“I am aware of your acts, that you have a name that you are living, and are dead. Become watchful, and establish the rest who were about to be dying; for I have not found your acts completed in the sight of my God…Yet you have a few names in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is conquering will be clothed thus in white garments, and under no circumstances will I be erasing his name from the scroll of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his messengers.” (Rev. 3:1-5)
As noted earlier, this view of what makes one righteous and thus worthy of life in the eons to come is precisely what James affirmed in his letter. One’s being “just” (and thus “justified”) depended on “discharging the royal law” and doing the sort of works by means of which one’s faith was perfected. Failing to “endure trial” by transgressing the law (and thus “working sin”) jeopardized one’s future salvation, and disqualified one from obtaining the “wreath of life” (which, as we’ve seen from Christ’s words above, means being worthy of life during the eons to come rather than having one’s name erased from the “scroll of life” and being among those who will be “injured by the second death”). Their justification was not “through the faith of Christ,” because if it was, there would be no danger of their losing or forfeiting the “wreath of life,” or of their being erased from the “scroll of life.” Their receiving eonian life would be just as secure as Christ’s present life, since the basis for their deserving it would be Christ’s own righteousness, rather than their own.
What about the "Great White Throne Judgment?"
Before considering the rest of the “circumcision letters,” I’d like to conclude this section with a few remarks on the “great white throne” judgment described in Revelation 20:11-15. In this passage, we read of “the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne.” We read that scrolls will be opened, and that, in addition to these scrolls, there will be a scroll opened that John identifies as being the “scroll of life.” John then tells us that everyone he saw appearing before the great white throne were “judged by that which is written in the scrolls in accord with their acts” (vv. 12-13). John later added that “if anyone was not found written in the scroll of life, he was cast into the lake of fire” (v. 15).
The belief of most students of Scripture throughout history – and, perhaps most notably among those in the body of Christ today, A.E. Knoch - is that no one being judged at this judgment will be “found written in the scroll of life.” That is, it is commonly believed that all who will be appearing before the great white throne will end up being cast into the lake of fire. One of the beliefs that seems to underpin this popular view is that the standard by which God will be judging people at this time is God’s absolute righteousness – i.e., the righteousness that is “through Jesus Christ’s faith,” and which is “for all, and on all who are believing” (Rom. 3:21-22).
However, when we keep in mind that there were righteous, believing pre-Israelites (such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Job, etc.), the view that all who will be judged at the Great White Throne will be cast into the lake of fire is very much undermined. This category of righteous people - being non-Israelites - will not be among those raised by Christ at the "former resurrection" (Rev. 20:5) to enjoy an allotment in the land of Israel during the millennial reign. And we have no scriptural reason to deny that they’ll be among those judged at the great white throne judgment. However, since Hebrews 11 leaves us little doubt that they will have an allotment on the new earth during the last and greatest eon, we can conclude that their names are written in the “scroll of life.” The people in this category (i.e., righteous pre-Israelites) are not, therefore, going to be cast into the lake of fire. And if that’s the case, then the same can be said for righteous non-Israelites who lived in subsequent time periods – including those alive today, who aren’t members of the body of Christ.
Now, if the standard by which people are going to be judged is the absolute righteousness of God, then no one outside of those in the body of Christ will be found in the “scroll of life,” and will be able to avoid being cast into the lake of fire. Since some – perhaps many – human beings will, in fact, be found in the scroll of life, then it follows that the standard according to which people will be judged at the great white throne is not the absolute righteousness of God. Rather, the sort of righteousness that will qualify people for inclusion in the scroll of life (and thus eonian life on the new earth) will be a relative righteousness.
Now, if the standard by which people are going to be judged is the absolute righteousness of God, then no one outside of those in the body of Christ will be found in the “scroll of life,” and will be able to avoid being cast into the lake of fire. Since some – perhaps many – human beings will, in fact, be found in the scroll of life, then it follows that the standard according to which people will be judged at the great white throne is not the absolute righteousness of God. Rather, the sort of righteousness that will qualify people for inclusion in the scroll of life (and thus eonian life on the new earth) will be a relative righteousness.
The Present Recipients of Justification through the Faith of Christ: Part 2 (Relative righteousness; faith and works; James and Paul’s use of Abraham)
Relative or “common” righteousness
Although the “righteousness of God” referred to by Paul is an absolute righteousness, the most common sense in which humans are said to be just or righteous in scripture is, by far, the relative sense. It is a relative righteousness because it does not involve perfect conformity to God’s preceptive will, or the perfect fulfillment of one’s legal and relational obligations to God and to one’s fellow human beings. Solomon had this righteousness in view when he wrote, “There is no righteous human in the earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). According to this sense, those said to be righteous, just, blameless, upright (etc.) are those who, generally or comparatively speaking, conform to what God requires of human beings, both in heart and in conduct.
Although by no means sinless, a person who is righteous according to this relative sense is one whose conduct is, in general, based on faith in (and faithfulness to) God, and a desire/willingness to do what is pleasing to him. Those who are righteous in the relative sense are often contrasted in scripture with those said to be “wicked” (Gen. 18:23; Ex. 23:7; 2 Sam. 4:11; 1 Kings 8:32; Job 35:8; Psalm 1:1-6; 7:8-9; 11:5; 34:21; 37:16-17, 21; Eccl. 8:14; Ez. 13:22; etc.). The Psalms and the book of Proverbs are especially noteworthy with regards to their repeated emphasis on the contrast between the righteous/just and the wicked/unjust.
The righteous, in this sense, are those who, generally and comparatively speaking, “fear God” (i.e., take him seriously and try to live in conformity to his revealed, preceptive will), in contrast with the “wicked,” who do not fear God, and whose heart and conduct is characterized by pride, arrogance, deceit, greed, cruelty, violence, injustice (etc.). David described a righteous man as “he who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend…” (Ps. 15:1-3). The prophet Malachi described the righteous as those who fear and serve God, and refers to the wicked as “arrogant” and “evildoers” (Mal. 3:16-18). It’s also clear from Mal. 4:1-4 that the righteousness of those who fear and serve God involves “remembering the law of Moses.”
Abraham had this type of righteousness in view when he asked God if he would “sweep away the righteous with the wicked” when destroying the city of Sodom, or if he would mercifully spare the righteous, if there were any (Gen. 18:23-28). Moses had this relative righteousness in view when he linked Israel’s righteousness to the keeping of the precepts and statutes of the law (Deut. 6:25; cf. Deut. 24:13). Concerning this righteousness, God declared the following to Israel in Isaiah 48:18: “Oh that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea…” And later, God spoke of Israelites who “pursue righteousness” as those who “seek Yahweh,” and of those who “know righteousness” as those “in whose heart is [God’s] law” (Isa. 51:1, 7).
It is in this same relative sense that Christ referred to Abel as “just” (Matt. 23:35; cf. Heb 11:4 and 1 John 3:12), and declared that one who received a “just man in the name of a just man” would “be obtaining a just man’s wages” (Matt. 10:41; cf. 13:17; 23:29). It is in this same sense that Lot is referred to as “just” (2 Peter 2:7-8), as well as Joseph (Matt. 1:19), Simeon (Luke 2:25), John the Baptist (Mark 6:20), Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50), and Cornelius (Acts 10:22). It is this righteousness that the messenger Gabriel had in view when he told Zechariah that his son, John, would be turning back the hearts of the stubborn “to the prudence of the just” (Luke 1:17).
Saul told David that he was “more righteous” than he was, since David had repaid him good, whereas Saul had repaid him evil (1 Sam. 24:18). Of course, neither David nor Saul were righteous or just absolutely speaking (i.e., in accord with God’s absolute standard of righteousness); they were both sinners “wanting of the glory of God.” But with regards to righteousness in the relative sense, Saul spoke the truth. David was indeed “more righteous” than Saul, relatively speaking. It was in this sense that David even considered himself righteous: “Yahweh dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of Yahweh and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and from his statutes I did not turn aside. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from guilt. And Yahweh has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight” (Psalm 18:20-24 and 2 Sam. 22; cf. 1 Kings 3:6 and 9:4). It is clear that this righteousness which David ascribed to himself was inseparable from his own faith and conduct.
In Ezekiel 18, the righteousness by which an Israelite could be acceptable to God (and thus worthy of life rather than death) was inseparably connected with his conduct; a righteous man was a man who did what was “just and right.” Rather than doing the sorts of sinful things described in Ezekiel 18:6-8, a righteous man was a man who “walked in God’s statutes and kept God’s rules by acting faithfully” (Ez. 18:5-9). And if a wicked person turned away from all his sins that he had committed and kept God’s statutes and did what was just and right, then he would be righteous, and would thus live (vv. 21-22). But (according to Ezekiel) if a righteous person turned away from his righteousness and did injustice and the same abominations that the wicked person did, his past righteous conduct would not save him (v. 24); he had to repent and once again start doing what was right and just.
It needs to be emphasized that, in accord with the type of righteousness in view, the requirement by which one could be worthy of life rather than death was not perfect, unwavering, lifelong obedience to God. No Israelite could’ve been considered righteous and acceptable to God (or deserving of life rather than death) when held against this absolute standard; the very fact that some Israelites (such as Ezekiel himself) were not in the category of those considered “wicked” and worthy of death implies that the righteousness in view was a relative righteousness.
Relative righteousness and the relationship between faith and works
It should be clear from the above that there is a certain way that Israelites had to conduct themselves in order to be considered just/righteous rather than unjust/wicked. Luke tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “both just in front of God, going in all the precepts and just statutes of the Lord, blameless” (Luke 1:5-6). Since their being “just” and “blameless” was inseparable from their “going in all the precepts and just statutes of the Lord,” the righteousness in view should be understood as relative rather than absolute.
Like all the righteous men and women who lived before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth were not righteous in the sense of having attained to God’s perfect standard of righteousness (they were still “under sin” and “wanting of the glory of God”). But relatively speaking, they could be referred to as “just” and “blameless,” nonetheless. Despite the failings Zechariah and Elizabeth undoubtedly had with regards to their attempt to obey God perfectly, they lived in such a way that they could be counted among those who are worthy to be raised at the “resurrection of the just,” to enjoy eonian life in the kingdom of God (Luke 14:14; 20:35).
It was, therefore, not an absolute, perfect righteousness but rather their own, personal (and thus imperfect) righteousness that qualified Israelites such as Zechariah and Elizabeth for this expectation. However, even the relative righteousness of Israelites like this shouldn’t be understood as being separable from their faith, or as being based solely on outward conduct/works. Faith has always been essential to one’s being just (Hab. 2:4; cf. Rom. 1:17), which means that the law has never been the basis for anyone’s being declared righteous by God, even in the relative sense in which one can be righteous (Gal. 3:11).
The precept-keeping conduct by which Israelites like Zechariah and Elizabeth could be considered just in their day had to be “in accord with faith,” for “apart from faith it is impossible to be well pleasing, for he who is coming to God must believe that He is, and is becoming a Rewarder of those who are seeking Him out” (Heb. 11:6-7). For believing Israelites like Zechariah and Elizabeth, faith in God and his promises to Israel was expressed through their obedient conduct. No believing, God-fearing Israelite would want to live a life characterized by deliberate violation of the precepts of the law. Such a life of lawless rebellion could only stem from a lack of faith in God – i.e., unbelief. So again, it’s simply not the case that the righteousness of any Israelite could, even relatively speaking, be understood as separable from their faith.
What we read in James’ letter concerning justification brings some clarity to the issue of how faith and works “work together” in the salvation of those saints who weren’t pre-designated to become members of the body of Christ. James’ view of how one became (and remained) “just” before God - and thus how one qualified to enter into life in the eon to come – was in perfect accord with the Hebrew Scriptures. Consider, for example, the following excerpts from chapter two of James’ letter to the twelve tribes (which was written anywhere between 20-30 years after the death and resurrection of Christ):
“What is the benefit, my brethren, if anyone should be saying he has faith, yet may have no works? That faith cannot save him.”
“Thus also, is faith, if it should not have works: it is dead by itself.”
“Abraham, our father, was he not justified by works when offering up his son Isaac on the altar? You are observing that faith worked together with his works, and by works was faith perfected. And fulfilled was the scripture which is saying, Now ‘Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness,’ and he was called ‘the friend of God.’”
“You see that by works a man is being justified, and not by faith only.”
“For even as the body apart from spirit is dead, thus also faith apart from works is dead.”
As should be evident to the reader, James did not have in mind the same sort of justification (and thus the same sort of righteousness, or “just status”) in his letter to the twelve tribes as Paul did when he wrote to those in the body of Christ. They had in mind two different senses in which one could be justified. The justification that James had in mind was based on righteousness in the relative sense, and it is for this reason that faith and works were seen as essential to the justification of the Israelites and proselytes to whom he wrote.
James was not teaching the recipients of his letter that works were sufficient for their justification. James clearly believed that faith was just as essential to one’s being justified and saved as were one’s works. His teaching was not in conflict with the affirmation of the prophet Habakkuk that “the just shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4), or with that of the author of Hebrews when he wrote that “apart from faith it is impossible to be well pleasing” to God (Heb. 11:6). James was not denying the necessity of faith in his letter, but rather emphasizing the importance of the works which, along with faith, were (and will be) essential to the justification and salvation of the believing Israelites to whom he wrote.
According to James, faith “works together” with a person’s works, and works “perfect” one’s faith. Based on what James wrote prior to the passage concerning faith and works, it would appear that the works James had in mind are those that are in accord with what he called “the royal law” and “the perfect law of freedom,” which was summed up in the precept, “You shall be loving your associate as yourself” (James 1:25; 2:8-13), and which consisted in acts of compassion and service toward others (vv. 14-17; compare with James 1:26-27 and Hebrews 6:10). Apart from works of obedience to this “royal law,” the faith of those to whom he wrote was “dead,” and thus unable to justify and save them. Faith and works, therefore, depended on each other, and those to whom James wrote needed to have both in order to be justified and saved.
The reason this isn’t the case for those in the body of Christ is not because the faith of those in the body of Christ is sufficient for their salvation and has no need of being perfected; rather, it’s because (as argued earlier) the faith through which we’re justified is not our own faith. Being “in Christ” as “members of his body,” the faith through which we’re justified is Christ’s faith. Christ’s faith was the perfect, ideal example of the living, saving faith described by James in his letter, and is the sole basis for the justification of all in the body of Christ.
It should also be noted that, for James, enduring the “various trials” into which the recipients of his letter could “fall” was essential to their being saved. Sin - a violation of the “royal law” that James exhorted the recipients of his letter to be “discharging” - led to death, and it was only by enduring trial (by resisting the desires that lead to sin) that one became “qualified” to obtain the “wreath of life” (James 1:2-4, 12-15). And just as Christ warned in his “Sermon on the Mount,” using one’s tongue to curse another human being in anger was a serious enough offense to make one liable to “the Gehenna of fire” (James 3:6; cf. Matt. 5:21-22), which refers to the valley into which the dead bodies of executed lawbreakers will be cast after Christ has returned and established the kingdom of God on the earth (see, for example, Mark 9:43-48; cf. Isaiah 66:24). Thus, for James, using one’s tongue to hatefully curse someone else was enough to jeopardize one’s future life in the coming kingdom (assuming, of course, one was not turned back from the “deception of his way,” that his soul may be saved from death; James 5:19-20).
James’ use of Abraham
In the example that James provided concerning Abraham, the “works” in view involved Abraham’s obedience to God’s command to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Had Abraham disobeyed God at this time, his faith in God (according to James) would not have been “perfected.” Abraham’s faith would’ve been “dead.” James even wrote that, by Abraham’s obeying God in Genesis 22, “the scripture” (i.e., Genesis 15:6, where we read that Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness) was “fulfilled.”
This tells us that the righteousness that was reckoned to Abraham in Genesis 15:6 was of the same nature as the righteousness reckoned to him when he obeyed God’s command to offer up Isaac. In telling the reader that Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22 was the fulfillment of what we read in Genesis 15:6, James was thereby “linking” the righteousness that Abraham had in Genesis 15:6 with the righteousness that he had in Genesis 22 (it was, in other words, a relative, rather than absolute, righteousness). Had Abraham disobeyed God when God commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, he would’ve failed to be righteous in the sense in which he was righteous when he believed God’s promise concerning his offspring. He would not have been “justified.” But because Abraham obeyed God, he was justified, or declared righteous, by God. And, consequently, it could be said that, at this time in his life, Abraham was “justified by works and not by faith only.”
Paul’s use of Abraham
In Genesis 15:6 we’re told that, when Abraham (then named Abram) believed God’s promise concerning his offspring, his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” And in both Galatians 3:6 and Romans 4, Paul used this very verse in defense of the truth of justification by faith apart from works. In fact, it is believed by many students of Scripture that Abraham was the first man to be justified in the same sense that Paul and those to whom he wrote were justified. However, I believe this to be a mistaken view, and that those who believe this have failed to appreciate just how radical the truth that Paul taught concerning justification actually is.
Having considered the relative sense in which people can be described as righteous, we are now in a better position to understand why Paul’s use of Abraham in defense of his teaching concerning justification by faith apart from works is perfectly consistent with the fact that no one was justified through the faith of Christ before Christ’s death and resurrection. Although there are important similarities between the justification of Abraham referred to in Genesis 15:6 and the justification of those in the body of Christ, there are important differences as well.
It is because Paul was using Abraham in defense of the truth that he was dispensing to those in the body of Christ concerning justification that he (understandably) emphasized what those to whom he wrote had in common with Abraham, rather than the differences. And what did they have in common? Simply this: While Abraham was still uncircumcised, he had been declared righteous – i.e., justified – by God when he believed God’s promise to him concerning his future offspring, as recorded in Genesis 15:6. And insofar as this was the case, Abraham’s justification supported (by providing helpful scriptural precedent for) Paul’s teaching concerning justification.
The shared fact of being declared righteous by faith - apart from one’s being circumcised or doing anything in response to a command from God - was all that Paul needed in defense of his position. But the fact that Abraham had this in common with those in the body of Christ to whom Paul wrote does not mean that the righteousness pertaining to Abraham’s justification and the righteousness pertaining to the justification of those to whom Paul wrote was exactly the same, and of the same exact nature. That which provided Paul with scriptural “ammunition” with which to defend the truth about justification he was dispensing among the nations was not the intrinsic nature of the righteousness that was “reckoned” to Abraham in Genesis 15:6, but rather the unique circumstances in which righteousness was reckoned to him.
As we’ve seen, the righteousness which pertained to Abraham’s justification in Genesis 15:6 could not have been the “righteousness of God” that is “through Jesus Christ’s faith.” This righteousness was simply not available to anyone until after the death and resurrection of Christ. Rather, the righteousness that was “reckoned” to Abraham when he believed God’s promise in Genesis 15:6 was the same sort of relative righteousness which, as we’ve seen in the previous section, is referred to throughout the Scriptures. But because this righteousness was reckoned to Abraham apart from works, Gen. 15:6 “bridges the gap,” so to speak, between everything the Hebrew Scriptures had said concerning human righteousness, and the newly-manifested “righteousness of God” that is through Christ’s faith, and which those to whom Paul wrote had received.
Believing God was the most righteous thing Abraham could’ve done in response to hearing God’s promise to him, and thus his faith was “counted to him as righteousness,” apart from his having to do anything else. Nothing else was needed for Abraham to be just or righteous before God when he received this promise except to simply believe that God would be faithful to his promise. But this in no way suggests that the righteousness which was “reckoned” to Abraham when he believed what God promised would take place was an absolute (and permanent) righteousness. In fact, what we read just two chapters later suggests the exact opposite.
In Genesis 17:1-2, we read that God appeared to Abraham when he was 99 years old (approximately 15 years after the events of chapter 15) and told him, “Walk before me, and be blameless [or “flawless”], that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” God then makes the “covenant of circumcision” with Abraham (Acts 7:8), and commands him to keep this covenant by receiving (along with “every male” among him) the sign of the covenant: circumcision. Here, Abraham’s being “blameless” before God involved, at the very least, his getting circumcised.
As noted earlier, those who were described as righteous were also blameless in the same sense (and vice-versa); Noah, for example, is described as having been “a righteous man, blameless [or “flawless”] in his generation” (Gen. 6:9; 7:1), and Job (whose righteousness is referred to in Ezekiel 14:14, 20) is said to have been “blameless and upright,” because of his fearing God and turning away from evil (Job 1:1, 8). That is, the sense in which one could be said to be “righteous” or “just” is the same sense in which one could be said to be “blameless” or “flawless.” Hypothetically speaking, then, if Abraham had disobeyed God and refused to get circumcised, he would have been neither “blameless” nor “righteous” before God, in the relative sense. At this point, Abraham’s righteousness – his being “just” before God - required more than “merely” believing God’s promise concerning his future offspring. It required an act of obedience.Similarly, when God subsequently tested Abraham by commanding him to take his “only son Isaac” – the very son who was born in accord with God’s promise – and sacrifice him to God as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:1-2), something more than “merely” believing God’s promise concerning Abraham’s future offspring was needed if Abraham was to be righteous before God in the sense in which he was righteous when he believed God in Genesis 15:6. Would it have been righteous of Abraham to disobey God’s command and refuse to offer up his son as a sacrifice? No. Unlike in Genesis 15:6, something more than faith that God would fulfill his promise was required in order for Abraham to be just before God. With regards to righteousness in the relative sense, Abraham’s faith had to find expression in “works” – i.e., obedient conduct - in order for him to be righteous, and thus justified by God.