Paul had a problem. There was some confusion about how this new fledging church receives righteousness. Do they have to work for it? Is it given by Christ’s sacrifice? What then do they do with the Law that comes from the religious system that preceded it? How do the rules pertain to righteousness? What must the believer in this new thing do to receive favor (righteousness) from God? It certainly is a difficult question. On the one hand there were those who believed that all the rules had to be followed in order to receive the gift that God had given in the sacrifice of Christ. Others believed that there was no need to follow the rules at all. Christ’s sacrifice was available to all who believed that Christ was who He said He was and that His death freed them from sin. In his letter to the Romans, Paul gives us as clear an answer as possible:
“But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus . . . Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (Rom 3:21-24, 27-28)
To underscore the point, Paul goes on to give an example. In Romans 4 he writes, “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (Rom 4:1-3)
But Paul does not want the Romans to get the wrong idea. Faith does not totally do away with the law. The law is still important to Paul. So he asks and answers, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.” (Rom 3:31) Paul seems to be saying here that the law is established by our faith, meaning that we do not keep the law in order to be righteous, but that the righteousness we receive by faith enables us to keep the law. This was a paradigmatic shift for the people of Paul’s day. Instead of the law allowing the believer to be righteous, the believer keeps the law because he/she has already been deemed righteous by the very fact that they believe! Our works have nothing to do with attaining or retaining the righteousness that has already been given. Rather, the works that we exhibit are a manifestation of the state in which we exist – a state of righteousness, granted by God based simply on our belief.
I am quite frankly amazed at how this controversy still rages on in churches today. I have found the debates that I have participated in and the discussions I have led on this issue to be fascinating. At the end of the day I think the distillation is this – that works are important, but not more important than the faith that leads to righteousness, and that attaining and retaining righteousness has nothing to do with what we do. Rather, what we do is indicative of the gift already given. Furthermore, if the gift has already been given, then it is available to anyone who is willing to believe that the gift has been given. Therefore, there is nothing that anyone has to do in order to receive the gift, and there is nothing that anyone can do to keep the gift. What great news that is to anyone who is struggling through their relationship with God, or to anyone who does not know Him. You don’t have to clean yourself up in order to receive this gift. You don’t even have to be so concerned with losing the gift if you don’t stay clean. So long as you continue to believe and stay in a relationship with the Gift-giver, the rest will take care of itself.
It’s a shame that the paradigmatic shift necessary in Paul’s day is still necessary almost 2000 years after he wrote those words. I think we stumble on this concept because we refuse to believe that Someone would be this good to us. This is the greatest gift that can be given, and we don’t have anything to do with it. We cannot earn it in any way. We feel that we have to justify to God (and maybe not to Him, but to ourselves and others), the reasons why we should receive the gift that He gave us before we wanted it. (See Rom 5:8) But I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth. If God has already given, I am willing to receive, and even more, I am unwilling to do anything that keeps others from receiving this gift as well.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/jason-hines
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