Acts and Faith
In the third and fourth chapters of the Book of Romans Paul sets down one of the cornerstones of Christian theology. Paul argues that no man can be justified by works as described in the Law of Moses because such justification would be a justification of debt and not of grace. Only through faith, argues Paul, is the justification a justification of grace.
Paul is saying that if God rewards good works it would be as if God is paying off a debt to the doer of these works. But when God rewards faith then God’s mercy and grace are revealed.
In order to support this theology Paul points to Genesis 15:6 where God reckoned Abraham’s faith for righteousness. The conclusion Paul arrives at is that only faith and not works can count for righteousness.
This Christian doctrine is the very antithesis of the Jewish Scriptures.
First of all, if God were to reward works it would NOT be an issue of paying a debt. God owes nothing to any of His creations. Whatever works are done by God’s creations give nothing to God that He did not already possess. If God chooses to reward works it is an expression of grace and mercy because our works belong to God before we gave them to Him. Just as God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness so did He count Phineas’ works for righteousness (Psalm 106:31) and so does He count our works as righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). Whatever it is that God counts as righteousness it is never a debt that He owes. It is always an expression of His grace and mercy.
But; protests the Christian, can works not be a product of hypocritical self-righteousness and an expression of self-absorption?
The answer is that of-course works can be empty and hypocritical but these are not the works that the Law of Moses talks of. The works described by the Law of Moses are works of obedience, works of hearkening to God’s voice, works that emerge from a heart that is completely submitted to God. It is only to the degree that the person is submitted to God in heart and in deed that we can consider the works as “hearkening to God’s voice”.
But as much as Christians are confused about works it seems to me that there is a deeper confusion about faith. I am not even referring to the fact that the faith of the Christian in Jesus has nothing to do with the faith of Abraham in the One Creator of heaven and earth. I am talking about the delusion that the path of faith is somehow free of self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
Christians seem to believe that their faith can justify them. But what is faith in God? Faith in God means recognizing that God is the only true power. If someone feels more secure because he or she has a steady job then their heart is leaning on a power other than God. If a person feels any better because the doctor reported that they are in good health then again the heart is not complete with God. If someone doesn’t feel as safe and secure in a lonely forest as they do in a civilized city then again the heart is relying on the power of men and not so much on the power of God.
Full faith in God means freedom from self-centeredness. If you feel just as happy when your friend acquires some goal in worldly or in spiritual matters as you do when you yourself reach that goal then you can say that you are free from self-centeredness.
Faith in God means freedom from pride. If you feel the same way when someone insults you as when someone compliments you then you can say that you are free of pride.
Does this mean that faith in God is impossible? No! Not at all. But it won’t happen without God’s help. You need to pray to God so that he can fill your heart with true faith in Him. You need to recognize that just as you cannot produce works that are pleasing to Him without complete and utter humility before God so will you not produce faith without complete humility before God.
You need to follow the path that God set for us so that we can walk in His faith. This path is the path of works. By doing justice and loving kindness we can learn to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). Not that we see these (the practice of justice and kindness) as a means to “earn” a walk with God. Because God will never owe us anything. Instead we see the practice of justice and kindness as opportunities to imbibe in God’s goodness and to humble ourselves before Him.
No one can say that their heart is entirely pure (Proverbs 20:9). All we can do is yearn and look forward to the day when God will intervene and cleanse us Himself (Deuteronomy 30:6). To yearn means to walk the path that God mapped out for us with as much obedience as God grants us each and every day.
But what happens until then? What happens before our hearts and deeds are completely subject to God? The Jewish Scriptures make it clear that God doesn’t expect perfection from His creations (Psalm 103:14). The Scriptures are replete with examples of God looking favorably upon the hearts and deeds of men even though we know that these men and women were not perfect in heart or in deed simply because they were human.
To think that we have “arrived” is arrogance. To believe that we are nowhere is spurning God’s goodness. We need to recognize our blessings at the same time that we need to recognize our utter dependence on God.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal