Justification by faith has a long-standing tradition within evangelical theology. A biblical teaching that most churchgoers have heard from weekly pulpits, often in an unbalanced way. It convey’s that one attains eternal life by having faith and believing in specific theological tenets about God and His Son. This doctrine has become the “Christianese” of the Protestant heritage. If you have experienced a church that preaches salvation via minimal show of faith—rather than via good works—then you know just how unsatisfying this poorly understood doctrine can be for those who desire to grow in the knowledge of practical righteousness. Grand words such as “righteousness” and “justification” can sound old-fashioned and judicially governed. Today’s churchgoers need a simpler explanation and desire integrity and justice as social virtues.
More than just willful decisions to meet the criterion of faith or accepting theological facts to appropriate salvation, the ideas of God’s right-making and life-giving liberation are important aspects of faith and hope. They are essential to telling the story of God’s love for the world—a story in which humans often lack integrity and justice. So, what does it mean to faithfully live a life of integrity and justice?
Genesis tells us that Abraham learns to trust in God, and eventually, his righteousness is regarded as remarkably complete (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). His faith is important, but we also read that “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5 ESV). Clearly, God does not believe good deeds amount to nothing, and He does not desire mere mental assent. If God’s relationships with us are analogous to our relationships with our spouses, children, and friends, then God values acts of kindness and goodwill. A relationship without mutual expression of love and trust is terribly lacking.
What are we to make of the claim that Abraham “kept” God’s charges, commandments, statutes, and teachings, when God does not give Abraham a specific set of commands? God regards Abraham as obedient, though he has never heard of Moses, the Torah, or the law of the Ten Commandments. Abraham does not merely reason from a commonly known standard to determine the rightness or wrongness of behaviors. It is not his commitment to doctrinal truths that acts as God’s measuring stick for his morality. So, how does Abraham determine what is righteous?
Obeying all that he knows of God’s righteousness, Abraham shows that he grasps God’s “unspoken ideal” (see Sigve K. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, 2009, p. 71). When God’s faithfulness and trust are placed at the center, all other morality measuring sticks fall short. God trusts Abraham, knowing that he has potential for good. His justification is based on the assurance of God’s love and faithfulness. Abraham learns to depend totally upon God instead of maintaining what he wants to believe about himself. Therefore, Abraham’s relational integrity is grounded in God’s faithfulness and trust, not in his own fidelity. Abraham’s involvement with God elicits a faith response. Such faith should not be considered a requirement for God to look at us in a new way but as a statement of being worthy of God’s trust and hope.
Abraham’s faith is more relational than cognitive. You could say that God also has faith in Abraham. God trusts Abraham, and Abraham’s faith is a sign that he is responding to God’s character of faithfulness. It reflects a partnership that is deeply relational. Abraham’s trust is important, but it’s God’s trust and integrity of character that make all the difference in the story.
Abraham discovers that living a life of integrity and justice means being involved with a God of faithfulness. Faithfulness is an enduring faith that involves unwavering trust and integrity. Paul makes the point that God’s righteousness is revealed in Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:21-26; 4:25; 5:1). Because Abraham’s faithfulness echoes the character of Jesus, obeying laws and rules is not the focal point of his action. This does not mean, however, that the commandments are irrelevant for Christians; in light of Jesus’s faith, the commandments take on much greater significance (Revelation 12:17; 14:12).
This little commentary on the life of Abraham should cure us of the notion that God demands perfect obedience to law. Genesis 26:5 serves as a helpful corrective to the faulty theology that moral perfection can be achieved by ones adherence to law. Many misunderstand law as pertaining to a list of do’s and don’ts with it’s rewards and punishments, rather than to guidance and revelation. Reading the Old Testament through a lens of “faith versus works” tends to keep the focus on law and legal status rather than on the faithfulness of Jesus and the relational aspects of faith and hope.
The contrast, however, is not between observing the law and exercising mental assent (doing works verses believing facts), but between human action and divine action (God’s faithfulness in Jesus). If you find yourself responding with faith this becomes a relationship of mutuality, fellowship, and participation. Rather than emphasizing cognitive decisions to make salvation possible, God endows Abraham with an identity worthy of His trust. God says, “For I have chosen him, so that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.” (Genesis 18:19, NASB).
Abraham does not fulfill these accomplishments by adhering to a code of law. God believes in Abraham, which prompts his response. God likewise trusts in and hopes for us. While we are occasionally tested in times of struggle, there is a restfulness in knowing that we can be faithful because God trusts in us. If faithfulness is a reference to what God does for us, then it’s not what I have to muster up on my own. Being the kind of person worthy of God’s trust conveys the idea of partnership, and that’s a notion I can get excited about.
Craig Ashton Jr.