Still on the subject of judgment and works, justification and faith, and the fundamental misalignment of Reformed theology… Darren asks: “What was credited to Abraham by faith?” I’m not entirely sure what he’s getting at—he may just be asking what “it” refers to: “he counted it to him as righteousness”. If so, the answer is simply that God counted or reckoned his act of believing as righteousness. But it gives me an excuse to look a little more closely at Paul’s argument about righteousness and faith. We’ll begin with three other Old Testament passages:
- Moses says that “it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut. 6:25).
- Having been delivered by God from his enemies, David declares:
The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God. For all his rules were before me, and his statutes I did not put away from me. I was blameless before him, and I kept myself from my guilt. So the LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. (Psa 18:20–24; cf. 2 Sam. 22:21-25)
- When Phinehas killed the man of Israel and his Midianite wife, it was “counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever” (Ps. 106:31, with reference to Num. 25:7-8). This is the closest parallel to Genesis 15:6. Notice that it is what Phinehas did (he “stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed”) that is counted to him as righteousness.
These texts suggest that “he counted it to him as righteousness” means simply that in God’s eyes Abraham had done the right thing and would be rewarded for his belief in the promise regarding his descendants (Gen. 15:1, 6). If Israel had kept the commandments, that would have been righteousness for them, and they would have prospered in the land. David kept the ways of the Lord and was rewarded according to his righteousness. Phinehas’ violent response to Israel’s unfaithfulness was counted as righteousness, and he was remembered for his “good” deed from generation to generation.
Von Rad makes the further point that such “righteousness” is relational rather than absolute:
a man is called righteous who conducts himself properly with reference to an existing communal relationship, who, therefore, does justice to the claims which this communal relationship makes on him.1
So we should also highlight the covenantal dimension to the argument: Abraham’s trust is the ground not for his personal right standing with God as a sinner but for the future covenantal relationship between YHWH and his promised descendants. In Brueggemann’s words:
The faith of Abraham is certain of one point. There is a future to be given which will be new and not derived from the present barrenness. He believes that God can cause a break point between the exhausted present and the buoyant future. He believes in a genuine Genesis.2
Paul sees in Abraham a seminal example of faith rather than works being counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:3), but the point is still that Abraham did the right thing: he trusted YHWH to keep his promise, which is the basis for the future. This is underlined later in the chapter:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:19–25)
It is not a single moment of belief: he did not weaken in his faith, he did not waver, he grew strong in his faith, he was fully convinced, he believed through to the moment when God made good his promise. This is the sort of faith(fulness) that Paul is looking for from the saints in Rome, who will have to face considerable opposition, who will be subjected to tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Rom. 8:35). As I argued in The Future of the People of God, these are not the general afflictions of humanity: they are specifically the sufferings of the apostles and of the missional churches of the ancient world during a period of eschatological crisis.
The saints, therefore, are justified for doing the right thing—for exercising the same manner of trust in the face of an uncertain future that Abraham demonstrated. It’s very simple. There’s nothing mysterious or metaphysical about it. The language of “imputation” or “impartation” or “infusion” is overblown.
The saints are reckoned to be right, in God’s eye, for believing that by raising Jesus from the dead God has both ensured the future of his “new creation” people and given notice of his intention to judge and rule the nations. They are right—in the context of the story of God’s relationship with his people—to believe that the descendants of Abraham will inherit the world on the basis of the “righteousness of faith” rather than through adherence to the Jewish Law (Rom. 4:13).
They will be reckoned to be right in God’s eyes if they persevere in this belief—and in the behaviour that springs from it—through to the moment when paganism collapses and Jesus is confessed as Lord by the nations. And then—like Abraham, Israel in theory, David and Phinehas—they will be rewarded, they will be vindicated, they will be glorified along with their Lord when he “comes”.