Sunday, January 29, 2017

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. 

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