Bragging Rights

Notice, the first step Abraham makes towards God’s promise is one he takes in disobedience. In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to set out towards the land God will disclose to him, leaving behind his country and his kindred. Not even five verses later, we’re told that Abraham departs his country with his kin accompanying him. 

Abraham took Lot along with him. 

When it comes to God’s work of redemption and his place in it, Abraham has “no ground for boasting.” That’s how the Apostle Paul speaks of him in his epistles. 

No ground for boasting. 

Abraham brings nothing to the righteousness equation, Paul says in Romans, he simply trusted— eventually— that the Living God is able to work what his words promise.

Abraham simply had faith that the Almighty is able. 

He brought nothing. He could only believe— believe that the Living God is powerful to deliver what he declares. That Abraham has no grounds for boasting, brings nothing to the table, is precisely why Paul uses the language of gift. If Abraham somehow summoned from within himself the ability to obey God’s call then indeed the language of reward would be suitable. But Paul uses instead the language of gift because God makes Abraham a participant in redemption in spite of his disobedience. 

Notice too, in Romans 4 Paul never speaks of Abraham as “Father Abraham.” He’s not the patriarch of Israel, Paul says, he’s the father of the ungodly. Offensive words to Jewish ears, to be sure. Neither does Paul speak of the covenant much at all in his epistles. He speaks in Romans of the promise— a promise given to all not only to Israel. Most telling, Paul does not mention at all, as does the Old Testament and the intertestamental literature, Abraham’s obedience or faithfulness. 

Paul draws attention only to Abraham’s trust.

Abraham simply trusted God’s word and, by his trust— by his faith, the Apostle says— God reckoned to him “righteousness.” 

Righteousness. 

That word “righteouness” (as in, you’re in the right with God) in Hebrew and in Greek (in other words, in the entire Bible) it’s the same word as “justice” (as in, to do right according to God). 

And so at baptism, when we pray over the water “clothe this child in Christ’s righteousness…” we could just as easily pray “clothe this child in Christ’s justice…” 

Or in the Sermon on Mount, you could just as easily hear Jesus preach “Unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you wil not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

And in Paul’s proclamation, it could just as easily read: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might become the right-making of God.” 

Except that’s not exactly it either— all of those examples make justice/rightousness sound like nouns, like a quality or an attitude or an idea that we possess or that God possess. 

But, in Hebrew and in Greek, the word for righteousness/justice is a noun that functions with the force of a verb. 

In scripture, justice and righteousness are nouns that function with the force of a verb. And verbs do work. But, remember too, St. Paul says Abraham is the example. What’s true of him is the same for all of us. We bring nothing to the table. 

Verbs do work, but on our own we can only work sin. Thefore this noun with the force of a verb— it belongs to God. Rightousness…justice…it’s all God’s work, from beginning to end. 

We’re the objects of God’s verb.

It’s not we do our best and God does the rest. It’s not we do our part after God has done his part. It’s not God declares us righteous so that then we can go out and deliver the world from injustice. It’s all God’s work— that’s the point Paul makes with Abraham. 

The God who is both sides to his two-party promise is the subject to both meanings of the verb. 

Put it this way:

By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, God declares you forgiven by the justice of his cross for you. But also, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the Living God is able to draw you into his right-making work in the world for your neighbor. 

The God who has done for you in the work of Jesus Christ is the Living God who is able to draft you into his work for your neighbor.

Righteousness. 

Justice. 

It’s the same word, in Hebrew and in Greek. And in both, it works like a verb. And in both, God is the active agent. God is the subject of the sentence. 

This why the question Isn’t there work we have to do as Christians?— pardon the bluntness— it isn’t a very good question. 

By faith, you’ve been reckoned in the right with God. There is therefore now no condemnation— there’s nothing you have to do. But, by faith, God is able to reckon onto your doorstep some part of his right-making work in the world. 

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