Thursday, January 28, 2016

Abraham's Faith and Works - or Faith and Parachutes, Part 3

Abraham. Just reading the name to myself, I hear it being spoken by someone like James Earl Jones. Imagine trying to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him in God’s Kingdom. You’d feel about two inches tall by comparison. I know I would.

Abraham is mentioned prominently in the “faith chapter” – Hebrews 11 – and for good reason. There he is lauded for leaving his home for an unknown land and for offering up his son, Isaac.

Wait a minute. Why would Abraham’s works be mentioned in the “faith” chapter? I must be thinking of Romans.

(Romans 4:2-5) 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 accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.

Ok, that makes more sense. But wait, isn't there another scripture, one that marries the two concepts?

(James 2:21-24) Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

Hmmm. Now what?

The Churches of God love to exploit the seeming contradictions found within these passages to ridicule “so-called” Christianity’s teaching that salvation is by faith alone. Works are a requirement for those who wish to inherit eternal life, they object. Most of  today’s COGs are softer on the “or else” side of the works equation, but their founder, Herbert Armstrong, was known for teaching that believers were comparable to spiritual fetuses, and God would abort believers who did not grow enough or overcome enough sin.

As a result, today’s COGs are populated by a generation of people who know they can’t earn their salvation, but hope they don’t screw up badly enough to lose it. After years of well-meaning, uneducated, and dogmatic messages from a shrinking pool of speakers, they see nothing wrong with the mutually exclusive beliefs that you can’t earn right standing with God, but you must work for the rest of your life to keep your right standing with God. I know. I was one of them. For decades.

So who got it right when it comes to Abraham? James or Paul? Or, since both were inspired by God, is there another explanation? Today and in the coming weeks, as I continue delayed “Faith and Parachutes” posts (see part 1 and part 2), I’d like to look at some key events in the life of Abraham to get a better understanding of the correlation between faith and works, resolving the tension between Paul and James.


The story begins in Genesis 12:1-3, which lists the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. God tells Abram to leave Haran; promises to make a great nation of him and that he would bless all the families of the earth through him. Abram obeys, then famine and Lot’s captivity temporarily derail the story line.

In chapter 15, we see Abram lamenting that he has no heir. God responds by promising descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. In Genesis 15:6, Abram decided to trust God regarding his descendants, and God accounted his faith for righteousness. Simply put, this means that because of Abraham's faith, he found favor with God. God credited Christ's righteousness to Abraham's "sin account" and credited Abraham's sin to Jesus.

The statement made in Genesis 15:6 is so simple, yet so significant. But rather than considering the logical implications of this statement, groups like the Living Church of God try to immediately divert our attention:

“Taking this scripture alone seems to indicate that belief in the Lord is all that is necessary to be considered righteous. But James, the brother of Jesus, forcefully argues that without backing it up with action, belief is simply not enough.” ("Phil Sena, From Belief to Faith, Tomorrow's World , November-December 2015).
I'd like to offer my own follow-up scripture. We already read this passage, but it deserves a second look. Let's allow Paul to start unpacking the implications of this scripture.

(Romans 4:2-5) 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 accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.

This means that God considered Abraham legally righteous before Him. Abram was now entitled to eternal life (because of God's grace). Let that sink in for a minute. God did not account Christ’s righteousness to Abraham when he left Haran, when Isaac was conceived, or even when he attempted to sacrifice Isaac. He imputed Christ's righteousness to Abraham when the man decided to trust God and was simply staring up at the night sky.

No, God didn’t reward Abraham with salvation because he backed up the claim with action, despite what LCG's Phil Sena claims:

“Abraham believed that God could even resurrect Isaac back to physical life if He so willed.   This faith in God's power and goodness gave him the strength to obey God's command to sacrifice his son. "By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, 'In Isaac your seed shall be called,' concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense" (Hebrews 11:17–19) Anyone can claim to 'believe God' —but backing up the claim with action is why God accounted Abraham's belief as righteousness."

How can I say that Christ's righteousness wasn't the payoff for obedience? Because that's what Romans 4:10-11 tells us:

How then was it (righteousness) accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also.

Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17.  Simple math tells us that at least 14 years must have passed between Genesis 15:6 and the time God commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and his household (which included 13-year-old Ishmael, who was not yet conceived in Genesis 15:6).

Christ's righteousness was imputed to him before he was circumcised, and was not dependent upon his actions. Thankfully. Since the little bit we know of Abraham's track record during that intermittent period was not amazing. In the intervening verses, Abraham fathered a child with Sarah's maid and laughed in God's face.  Yet folks like LCG's Sena would have us believe that God credited Abraham with righteousness because of his actions.

“Anyone can claim to "believe God"—but backing up the claim with action is why God accounted Abraham's belief as righteousness,” Sena wrote.
If you tried to back Sena or other LCG comrades into a corner, I suppose they could argue that, back in Genesis 15, the omniscient God knew that Abraham would obey Him in Genesis 22 and therefore credited him with righteousness based on that knowledge. But that line of reasoning pushes LCG dangerously close accepting predestination – a doctrine they reject. If predestination were true, then God would know who would remain obedient from the beginning, your salvation would be sealed, and LCG and other COGs couldn't hold your eternal destiny over your head as blackmail for tithes and organizational loyalty. But if you feel your salvation is precarious, your fear makes you more likely to resign yourself to accepting their shenanigans and ultimatums.

This hypothetical desperate rebuttal becomes even more threatening to LCG when you consider how it refutes the false Armstrongist teaching that Jesus had to qualify to replace Satan as the ruler of the world. This false doctrine – which, in short, claims Jesus' victory was uncertain – is not consistent with several scriptures:

(Isaiah 53:4-5) Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. This “suffering servant” passage is prophetic, not speculative. It does not say "by His stripes we might be healed, depending on whether He is successful."

(John 3:14-15) And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. If this account from the book of Numbers depicted Christ, then surely His victory was assured at that time. Jesus wouldn't use it as an inspired example, then fail to follow through at the actual time this word picture symbolized.

(Revelation 13:8) All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Jesus was as good as slain from the foundation of the world, and his victory was assured. His sacrifice was not a hastily drawn-up plan B when Israel failed to keep its covenant with God.

Further, if our condition to “qualify” for salvation is based on Jesus' requirement to qualify, then  how solid is the case for either? God's decision to impute Christ's righteousness to Abraham clearly predated the crucifixion. He couldn't have done so if Christ's victory wasn't already certain.

But back to the main topic. Some would argue that Abraham's regeneration  and justification was what enabled his legendary works of obedience in the first place. This would makes sense. If we are to believe that heroes of faith like Abraham, Noah and Rahab were able to overcome their emnity with God on the strength of their own human efforts, then there is no need for Jesus’ death on the cross or the gift of the Holy Spirit. And isn't that really the point of Romans 4?

(Romans 4:2-4) For if Abraham was justified by works, be has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.

Abraham had faith, and the evidence of that faith manifest itself in his actions, as explained in James 2:22.

Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 

Like Abraham, God regenerates our hearts and counts us righteous because of our faith, not because of our works. Like Abraham, works of obedience should follow that give evidence of this invisible change. (if they don't, we need to examine where we really have faith, not just dig in and work harder). And like Abraham, we will still make mistakes.

Rather than scoff at the idea of salvation by faith, we should be grateful that we don't need to worry that every misstep will land us in the Lake of Fire. We should be thankful that the blood of Jesus covers our sins; be mindful that our sin is costly; be quick to repent, then go and strive to sin no more. We can rejoice in the knowledge that our works don't maintain our salvation; but instead, they give us the daily opportunity to serve our Father and bring honor and glory to His name.  

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11

1 comment:

xHWA said...

This is a really good article, Martha. Plainly demonstrates that putting works as the focus is putting the cart before the horse.

Righteousness is a description of our standing with God. Our standing with God is wholly dependent on our response to His invitation to us - in other words, faith. By faith we accept the Holy Spirit into our hearts and are regenerated. By the regeneration of the Holy Spirit our works and our lives change to reflect our new condition. Our works are a result of our new condition by faith. Good works are the evidence of righteousness, not the cause of righteousness. The heart must be righteous *before* good works can flow from it.
Yet if our works do not change, if we do not let the regeneration have its way in us, then what good was the faith? Faith not evidenced by works is dead faith.

If we focus on our works apart from faith, or changing our works by our own strength apart from the Holy Spirit, then we are putting the cart before the horse. In some extreme cases, we might even be attempting to circumvent or even manipulate God. Beware of that!! I think you are right to point out that this is precisely what the COGs are doing. And you are right to point out that it's equally improper to take the approach of "Now that I am righteous by faith, I'm going to focus on works of law so that I can self-generate more and more righteousness." It doesn't come that way. How can it possibly increase that way?

I think you really show all of this well in your article.