The fundamental truth concerning the role of faith in the life of a Christian is this: it is through faith that a Christian can exist in a righteous relationship with God. One cannot produce a righteous relationship with God through any form of obedient behavior. The most powerful spiritual deeds a Christian can perform are feeble and insufficient before God. If everything humanly possible is done to obey and to serve God, that Christian would be an unprofitable servant who had done only his duty (Luke 17:10). A Christian is reckoned righteous by God because of his faith.
That concept is very difficult for New Testament Christians to grasp. Two factors contribute to the difficulty of understanding the concept. First, as stated in chapter one, Christians retain the age-old desire to place their confidence in the deeds of obedient response to God. They trust obedience; they do not trust faith. Their preference is to believe that they are righteous because of their acts of obedience. Second, Christians rightfully fear the “faith only” doctrine. As a reaction to the “faith-only” error, many feel most comfortable with a concept of faith which reflects the opposite extreme. In an attempt to give Biblical emphasis to obedience, these do not give proper emphasis to the New Testament’s teaching concerning faith’s role in righteousness. These Christians have not understood that Paul’s teaching concerning being righteous through faith (Rom. 4:1-13) in no way affirms the position of “faith only.”
The struggle many experience in grasping the concept of righteousness through faith differs little from the struggle of the Judaizing teachers in the early church. In the early church, Judaizing teachers could not grasp the fact that a Gentile could be in full relationship with God by being baptized into Christ and living by faith in Christ. The idea of God’s grace being so freely available to pagan people was unacceptable. Prior conditions had to be imposed upon a believing Gentile before he could enter Christ and have full relationship with God. Appropriate prior conditions included at least two elements of Jewish proselytism: instruction in the Mosaical law and circumcision.
These teachers were so convinced of the inadequacy of the teaching of salvation by grace through faith that they did “follow up” work among baptized Gentiles. The Gentile converts were told that they were not yet in full relationship with God. They must be indoctrinated in the Mosaical law and be circumcised to have salvation. This activity of the Judaizing teachers necessitated Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Before Paul returned from his first missionary journey, the Judaizing teachers had created great confusion in the church at Antioch. Upon their return, Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and questioning” with those people, but the confusion endured (Acts 15:1, 2). The Judaizing teachers had convinced some Gentile Christians that without circumcision they could not be saved (Acts 15:2). They inferred that they had been sent by the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:24). When the matter was considered by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, Christian Pharisees declared, “It is needful to circumcise them (baptized Gentiles), and to charge them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). The faith of a baptized Gentile was effective only if he was being obedient to the Mosaical law.
Peter observed that a yoke should not be placed on the Gentile’s neck which Jews had been unable to bear: “We believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in like manner as they” (Acts 15:11). Peter understood that the achievements of obedience under the law could not make one righteous; faith in Christ made one righteous. James documented God’s longstanding interest in the Gentiles by citing the prophets (Acts 15:13-20).
A decree from the apostles and elders that baptized Gentiles were not obligated to obey the law did not resolve the matter. The problem in the churches of Galatia verifies the fact that the Judaizing teachers continued to hold their position and to pursue their cause. At Paul’s later arrest in Jerusalem, the Judaizing element in the Jerusalem church was still powerful (Acts 21:20).
The heart of the issue was this: does a person achieve a relationship of righteousness with God as a result of prescribed human works, or is the person in a relationship of righteousness with God because of the proper faith in Christ? For generations Judaism had declared that the key to righteous existence was obedient works. That orientation of Judaism had long been a flaw in Judaism. The end result of people placing confidence in ritual and prescribed works was the neglect of their hearts, their motives, and their emotions. The prophets of old declared that God rejected right acts which came from wrong hearts (Isa. 1:10-17; Jer. 6:16-21; Mal. 1:6-14; Amos 5:21-27). Their message continued to fall on deaf ears. Jewish confidence that righteousness resulted from human deeds was unshakable.
It was to be expected that Jewish Christians would find the concept of righteousness through faith difficult to accept. Their background of stringent demands focused in commands and rituals made the idea of being righteous through faith seem too simple, too easy. On the surface that concept seemed to negate the importance of obedience. For generations the soul of Judaism had been conformity through obedience. Well before Jesus’ birth the Jews were conforming to the authoritative “tradition of the fathers." The “tradition of the fathers” was Pharisaism’s interpretation of the Mosaical law. Its primary emphasis was on strict obedience expressed in precise conformity. The idea that one could be righteous merely by having the proper faith in Jesus stood 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
Yet, in Romans 3 and 4 that is precisely what Paul said the Jew had to understand. It was and is a fact that righteousness is reckoned through faith. The Jews argued that meant the Jew had no advantage, and there had been no profit in circumcision. They ridiculed the idea of the sufficiency of grace through faith by arguing that Christians should continue to live in sin to illustrate the sufficiency of God’s grace (Romans 6:1).
Paul documented his position with Abraham’s relationship with God (Romans 4:1-13). He declared that being made righteous through faith was not a new concept. Abraham, who lived before the law, was ancient proof that a person stands in a righteous relationship with God because of his faith (v. 3). Christ had not ushered in a new concept of the means of being righteous. He only had verified a truth which was older than the nation of Israel. It was that truth which made their forefather righteous. All of that which God had culminated in Christ began in Abraham. It had begun in Abraham because he was capable of having the faith which could be reckoned for righteousness. As Abraham was righteous before God through faith, so are Abraham’s new heirs made righteous through the faith which characterized Abraham (Gal. 3:26-28).
When Jesus died upon the cross, He literally bore mankind’s sin in His body. In Paul’s words, “Him who knew no sin he (God) made to be sin on our behalf" (2 Cor. 5:21). In Peter’s words concerning Jesus, “...Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree..." (1 Pet. 2:24). Jesus on the cross experienced the ultimate human experience. It was not just death, but death with sin in separation from God. Though he had no sin of his own, he died as a sinner would die because he carried the sins of mankind in his body.
When a person accepts Jesus’ sacrifice for his sins through faith, repentance, and baptism, that person’s sins become a part of those given to Christ. His sins become a part of the sins Jesus bore in His body.
At the same moment the person’s sins are being given to Christ, the person is receiving something from Christ. When he accepts Jesus’ sacrifice by entering Christ through baptism, God takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus and clothes him in that righteousness. Again 2 Corinthians 5:21 states that God made Jesus to be sin on our behalf “that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” A person is able to be seen as righteous before God only if that person has been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. By the grace of God, when one is baptized into Christ he puts on Christ (Gal. 3:27).
It is crucial that this concept not be misunderstood or misrepresented. The point is not that Jesus was made sinful on the cross.1 He was not a transgressor and did not become a transgressor on the cross (Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 Jn. 3:5). He was made to be sin. He was identified with sin because he assumed in his body humanity’s sin as he died.2 The point is not that we become righteous when clothed with Christ.3 No human being will ever be righteous before God (Rom. 3:10); people cannot achieve the state of being righteous. That is not within the capacity of earthly existence. The person who is baptized into Christ is identified with righteousness because his faith-response to God allowed God to identify him with the righteousness of Christ. In the same way God identified Jesus with sin on the cross by allowing the sins of mankind to be placed in His dying body. God identifies the baptized believer with righteousness by allowing the perfect righteousness of Jesus to clothe the believer.
Following baptism, the believer continues to be reckoned as a righteous person because of his faith. It is having the proper faith which allows God to continue to reckon him as being righteous. Thus, in spite of being temptable and having flaws, imperfections, imperfect knowledge, sins of ignorance, and the weakness of the flesh, he continues to stand as being righteous before God through having proper faith. The imperfect Christian (which is every Christian) clothed in the righteousness of Jesus continues before God as a righteous person because of his faith.
This faith of righteousness will be the source of all his obedience. The obedience produced by the faith of righteousness will be superior in every way to the obedience produced by duty, by obligation, by fear (terror) of God, or by guilt. It will arise out of the deepest form of commitment and out of the highest sense of service. It will not be an attempt to prove the goodness or the worthiness of the baptized believer; it will be an expression of genuine love and boundless appreciation for righteousness bestowed through faith in Jesus.
The Christian’s faith of righteousness is not a mystical defense against sin. It is not a magical power to keep a Christian from sinning. It is a state of being for one who is alive in Christ. It allows imperfect Christians to be seen as righteous by a perfect God. It means that a Christian through God’s grace can be righteous despite the fact that true righteousness is unattainable through any human act.
Paul himself is the perfect example of being righteous through faith in Jesus. Philippians 3:1-16, especially verses 4-11, is (a) the perfect contrast of the righteousness sought through obedience and the righteousness which exists through faith, and is (b) the declaration of the superiority of the righteousness which exists through faith. Paul enumerated his achievements through works of obedience to divine teachings (vv. 4-6). He had all the works-obedience credentials of one who was regarded as being righteous by virtue of extraordinary obedience. Before accepting the fact that Jesus was the Christ, he was confident that personal righteousness was produced through obedience to divine expectations. His conviction that righteousness was achieved through obedience was devout and absolute. Unshakable confidence in righteousness produced by obedience resulted in his persecution of Jewish “heretics” who followed a dead Jesus (v. 6). He was so devoted to righteousness produced by obedience that he was blameless when examined by the standard of “righteousness that is in the law."
The discovery of the real identity of Jesus resulted in his consciously discarding the whole concept of righteousness through obedience. He regarded the past achievements of obedience as garbage (vv. 7, 8). He learned that the perfect means of being righteous before God was revealed in Christ. He no longer wanted “a righteousness of mine own” (v. 9), the inferior and inadequate righteousness of human achievement through obedience. Because he was then “found in Christ” he wanted the righteousness “which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
The transition from the covenant of the law of Moses to the covenant of Christ was far more than changing systems of authority. It also was changing the means of being righteous before God. It was the transition from an inadequate, inferior approach to being righteous before God through the achievements of human obedience. It was the transition to being righteous before God by being righteous through faith when one is in Christ. The righteousness possible through faith is of such superiority and perfection that the highly religious Paul would give up every past religious achievement to receive it.
The righteousness which is to be found through faith by being in Christ does not repudiate the importance or the place of obedience in one’s relationship with God. Paul’s obedient dedication and sacrificial service increased through having the faith which is reckoned for righteousness. No writings surpass Paul’s in stressing the importance of baptism into Christ and the importance of obedient service to Christ.
Righteousness through faith does not eliminate obedience. It changes the purpose and role of obedience. The person obeys because he is a believer who is in Christ. He is committed fully to the teachings and expectations of Christ because in Christ he lives in the faith reckoned for righteousness.
However, his confidence in his righteousness never rests in his obedient deeds. His confidence rests in his faith in his Savior. It is being in Christ that guarantees the security of his soul. The security of his soul does not rest in the fact that he has obeyed “X” number of commandments. He obeys because he is righteous through faith in Christ; he does not obey in order to become righteous. The power to be righteous is found in proper faith in Christ after having entered Christ. The power to be righteous is not found in the human achievement of obedience.
Abraham is the key to understanding this concept as it relates to the Christian’s life and existence. At what point was Abraham’s faith reckoned for righteousness? What was the relationship between that faith and Abraham’s obedience?
1. What is the relationship between faith and a righteous
relationship with God?
2. Why do Christians find this concept difficult to understand?
3. Who were the Judaizing teachers?
a. What was their position concerning a Gentile’s salvation?
b. What work did they do among baptized Gentiles?
4. Discuss the problem the Judaizing teachers created in the church at Antioch (Acts 15).
5. Discuss the handling of the problem in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15).
6. What issue lay at the heart of that problem?
7. Why was it difficult for Jewish Christians to accept the concept of righteousness through faith?
8. Using Romans 4:1-13, discuss how Paul used Abraham to verify the concept of righteousness by faith.
9. By using 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, and Galatians 3:27, discuss the meaning of man’s sins being placed on Jesus and Jesus’ righteousness being placed on man.
10. Use Philippians 3:1-16 to illustrate the righteousness of faith in Christ by using Paul’s life.
11. What unnecessary fear must be disarmed?
12. Who is the key to understanding the concept?
Have the class do some research on Judaizing teachers and report their findings.
1. Philip E. Hughes, Commentary On The Second Epistle To The Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), pp. 213, 214.
2. James Thompson, The Second Letter of Paul To The Corinthians (Austin, Texas: R. B. Sweet Co., In., 1970), p. 83.
3. Hughes, op. cit., p. 214.
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