Not by your Righteousness
One of the central teachings of Protestant Christianity is that no man is justified through their own good deeds (Romans 3:20). At first glance it would seem that this sentiment expressed by Paul is an echo of Elihu’s declaration in the book of Job (35:7): “If you were righteous, what have you given Him, or what has He taken from your hand?” However, when we get beyond the superficial similarity, it becomes obvious that these two concepts are actually polar opposites.
Elihu is giving expression to the central theme of the Jewish Scriptures: that God alone is the absolute sovereign. As beings that were created by God, who are constantly sustained by God and who can only operate in the arena provided by God, we can never give to God that which does not already belong to Him. If a man were to live a perfectly righteous life, and die a martyr’s death for the glory of God, this man would still not have given God anything that he didn’t owe to God. David articulated the same concept: “For everything is from You and from Your hand we have given to You” (1Chronicles 29:14).
Judaism recognizes that God can owe man nothing. The fact that God allows us to serve Him and to follow His commandments is the greatest privilege that God granted to His creations. The fact that God counts our deeds for righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25) is the ultimate expression of God’s benevolence and kindness towards His people. Elihu and David are encouraging us to trust in the loving-kindness of God – because outside of God’s kindness – nothing exists.
Paul does not encourage his audience to throw their trust upon the all-encompassing kindness of God. Paul encourages his listeners to rely on the righteousness that was manifest in a body of flesh and blood – the alleged righteousness of Jesus (Romans 5:19). Paul attempts to convince his audience that good deeds preformed by a physical body that was created by God, that was constantly sustained by God and that operated in an arena provided by God, could somehow purchase God’s favor.
Elihu already taught us that this teaching is essentially a denial of God’s absolute sovereignty. By definition, the Creator of all can owe His creations nothing.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal