by Herb Douglass
At the bottom or top of most all disagreements in religious matters is: what is meant by “righteousness by faith.” If one wants to start a rumpus in any Sabbath School class or a minister’s workers meeting, just try to state that this phrase includes character transformation!
I don’t want to go over “why” this has become such a loaded grenade only in the last 60 years for Adventists. In another sense, this phrase has been the target for confusion since the first century!! But I do think it is necessary to rethink this phrase that has everything to do with one’s current peace and eternal expectations. Why, not being sure—is not healthy?
“Righteousness” is an old English word that means “right-wise-ness,” akin to “side-wise,” or “clock-wise.” Righteousness means doing things the right way.
Faith, unfortunately, has become so garbled that it is used by most anyone to describe their faith in their hair-dresser, their auto mechanic, or their surgeon. Or in a whole nation that had faith in Hitler!
But this confusion is caused by how the Greek Bible has been translated into English. In most English translations of the NT word pistis, we get “belief” or “believe” (verb form). Notice the confusion: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). But “believe” should be translated “have faith.” “To believe” that Jesus died on the Cross is light years away from “having faith” in Him. Many of those angry Jewish leaders and Pilate himself “believed” that Jesus died on the cross! Paul, in this passage and as he said many times throughout His writings, surely meant something more than “knowing” a fact – and that is why he used the verbal form of “pistis”: “to have faith,” rather than “believe.”
Throughout the Bible, “faith” is the word that describes the heart response of gratitude for who and what God has done. That gratitude includes trust—a trust that joyfully is willing to obey and do, all that the thankful heart knows to do. That is why Paul says that Abraham’s faith “was accounted to him for righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
In other words, we can say that Abraham is our example of “righteousness by faithfulness”! In Abraham’s story, so-called “works” have to be re-evaluated. The Old Testament definition of righteousness is obeying the will of God by righteous (side-wise, clock-wise) living:
“When you make your neighbour a loan of any sort, you shall not enter his house to take his pledge. You shall remain outside, and the man to whom you make the loan shall bring the pledge out to you. When the sun goes down you shall return the pledge to him, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you; and it will be righteousness for you before Yahweh your God” (Deuteronomy 24:13).
In the situation outlined by Moses, an expression of kindness becomes “righteousness before Yahweh your God.” In Deuteronomy 24:13. “Righteousness before God” is a status with an existential premise that arises out of fulfilling the obligations of Leviticus 19:18; “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This means righteousness before God is an actual righteousness, not an imaginary imputed righteousness. Obedience as “righteousness before God” arises out of a faith relationship, Old Testament faith (emuwnah) is the existential form in which faith in God already exists. In this understanding obedience is not something in addition to faith. Rather, obedience is faith’s visible manifestation. In Hebrew thinking, the instinct to trust God necessarily asserts itself in concrete action.
It is the instinct of self abandonment to God in an attitude of trust and unconditional surrender and not mere external obedience that counts as righteousness. Righteousness by faith as the Old Testament explains it is faithfulness (emuwnah) which is a moral alignment with God based on deep affection and trust. “You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
The biblical models for righteousness by faith are taken from the real world where God and humanity daily confront each other. In the Old Testament righteousness before God involved personal encounter in a moral interaction between the believer and God based on doing the will of God. In other words, it will be righteousness (tsĕdaqah) for us if we are careful to observe all these commandment before the Lord our God as He commanded us.
In the Old Testament the individual's relationship to God is not primarily premised on obeying rules and regulations but on the primary instinct of loyalty to God based on His loyalty to us. Just as God reaches out to us with kind intentions so we respond to Him and obey from the heart out of true affection.
“If you earnestly obey [“listen obediently] to My commandments . . . to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deut. 11:13, 14). “This day the Lord your God commands you to do these statutes and ordinances; therefore, you shall be careful to observe them with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have proclaimed the Lord to be your God, and that you will walk in His ways and keep His statutes, His commandments and His judgments and that you will obey His voice” (26:16-17).
Only those who “listen to His voice” within the context of a personal relationship are “righteous.” Their righteousness is the spontaneous response “to love Yahweh your God and to serve Him with all your heart and soul.” There are rules and guidelines in the relationship but these rules are at the boundaries of the relationship and not at the center. The motive for true obedience is the call to “listen to His voice.”
“When God’s righteous judgment is revealed! He will give to each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by perseverance in good work . . . but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness. There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil . . . but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good” (Romans 2:5-10).
When Paul declared God “will reward each one according to his works: eternal life to those who practice good works” he was repeating the testimony of Jesus; “if you wish to enter into [eternal] life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17). However, keeping the commandments in itself does not provide access to heaven. The function of obedience is to provide a medium of communication with a Holy God.
What Jesus and Paul are saying is if you want to receive eternal life you must be loyal to God. If you want to get from one city to the next you must travel on the right road. In Hebrew thinking if you want God's blessing you must follow the path He has outlined, being on the right path has nothing to do with merit.
“Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, for I delight in it.” “My steps have held fast to Your paths; My feet have not slipped.” Make me know Your ways Lord; teach me Your paths.” “Teach me Your way, Lord and lead me in a level path.” “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” “Many people will and say, come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord …. that we may walk in His paths.” “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” (Psalms 119:35, 17:5, 25:4, 27:11,119:105; Isa. 2:3; Jer. 6:16).
The idea of obedience as walking in the right path has no connection to a vertical concept of merit. Righteousness is the quality of our response to God’s initiative when He seeks to make us His people. In this context the divine offer always precedes the human response so that no ethical basis for merit can exist.
Deuteronomy 6:25 explains what righteousness before God means: “It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God, as He commanded us.” “Not the hearers of the Law are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law will be righteous” (Romans 2:13).
In the Scriptures obedience and disobedience have consequences that have nothing to do with the historical debate over the relationship between justification and merit. Consequences are like gravity they are part of the order of things. If I throw a rock into the air I am not the cause of it coming down. In the same way my obedience does not cause the consequences that are attached to it. God alone is in charge of the consequences and I am merely on the receiving end and if I obey I get a benefit that I did not cause.
There is no meritorious outcome for walking in right “paths”—there are only consequences determined by our choices. God said He will bless those who obey Him and punish those who disobey. Our choices are not primarily about rigorously keeping rules but about making a decision for or against God. The Torah offers more than static law; it represents a personal God communicating with created intelligences, Therefore, “listening” obedience becomes a moral issue that has consequences.
For that reason, faith is nothing more than saying “Yes” to God!
Next time we will discuss how all this relates to the unfortunate tension over the “merits” of “imputed righteousness.” Or the confusion caused by the different definitions for “sin.” Or what part “works” play in the Christian assurance.