I recently read an excellent paper by E. B. Howell, entitled “Saint Paul and the Greek World”. It is from the Journal Greece and Rome, March, 1964, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 7-29. In it, he makes a comment in passing that the recorded speech we have that Paul gave at the Areopagus in Acts 21 must be an extremely abbreviated version of the whole thing. At that time, and to that audience, the method of address would have followed all the rules of oratory they were expecting, including extensive and detailed proofs of the points argued. I guess it is a good think that Luke anticipated our love of Cliff notes.
Paul is not going to leave any of his points unproven: No loose ends. He needs to be thorough. He needs to make sure that the thought process he has gone through to understand the Gospel is clear to and repeatable by those he teaches. So, having brought up Abraham, he anticipates all the ways someone could try to pull his argument apart. Specifically, he cannot allow the idea to stand, that God’s salvation was only, or at least originally meant only, for the Jews. That would make the rest of humanity second class citizens of the Kingdom.
So, he goes directly to the source of any such argument, the crux of it all: The Promise.
Who was the Promise to Abraham for?
Romans 4:16 Therefore [it is] on the principle of faith, that [it might be] according to grace, in order to the promise being sure to all the seed, not to that only which [is] of the law, but to that also which [is] of Abraham’s faith, who is father of us all,
Paul’s answer is, the Promise was talking about all humanity, not just the Jews. The proof is in the way God spoke that promise:
Romans 4:17 (according as it is written, I have made thee father of many nations,) before the God whom he believed, who quickens the dead, and calls the things which be not as being;
Even if Abraham did not even have one son of the promise yet, he believed that many nations would come from him and be blessed. Why did he believe such a thing? Because he knew that God stands beyond time, and when He speaks of things that are not yet, He knows nevertheless that they are; because this God sees everything, and everything is subject to His will. This is what allowed Abraham to believe God could do things with his body and Sarah’s that were humanly impossible:
Romans 4:18-21 who against hope believed in hope to his becoming father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be: and not being weak in faith, he considered not his own body already become dead, being about a hundred years old, and the deadening of Sarah’s womb, and hesitated not at the promise of God through unbelief; but found strength in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that what he has promised he is able also to do;
And I love the way Paul explains Faith in this last phrase. It isn’t some mysterious force. It isn’t the result of forceful concentration on my part trying to psych myself into believing the impossible. It is just the result of a logical reasoned process (shades here of that other meaning of the word “reckon”) that results in myself being fully convinced that if God is Almighty God then, surely, He can do what He has promised. And if He is the God of Truth then, surely, He will do what He said He would.
It is that Trust in Him that God is seeking from His children
Isn’t that the kind of trust that God was expecting of Adam and Eve in the Garden? That they would trust Him and take Him at His word? Isn’t that why God gave His children all sorts of laws? So that if they would trust Him, and follow those instructions, they would survive and even flourish in the land? Therefore, in regard to the ultimate plan – the redemption of humanity – it is that same trust that He wants:
Romans 4:22 wherefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Note that Abraham was not “proven” righteous because he believed. And Abraham was not “made” righteous because he believed. What happened was that God counted that belief to be equivalent to righteousness. In the balance books of eternity, in the record of the trial at the final Judgment, God, the Judge himself, has entered this inscription: “This one is mine.” (Isaiah 43:1).
That acquittal from our sins (justification) is all done by the Grace of God. He didn’t have to do it. But He did it, and freely offered it to us. And if that is the way with Abraham, then it is the way it will be for all his children of the promise, from all the nations that he was called to bless:
Romans 4:23-25 Now it was not written on his account alone that it was reckoned to him, but on ours also, to whom, believing on him who has raised from among [the] dead Jesus our Lord, who has been delivered for our offences and has been raised for our justification, it will be reckoned.
It is reckoned to us too because we too believe in the Promise. The only difference is that we have seen the way God intended to fulfill that promise; we have seen the story of Jesus unfold. But believing it is not any “easier” for us than it was for Abraham. For we too have to believe in the humanly impossible, in that which our eyes cannot see and in that which we know has not happened yet: Namely, that Jesus was the One and Ultimate sacrifice. And that that sacrifice takes away our sins. And that that forgiveness brings us eternal life.
That last one is what we cannot see yet. But we have proof of it, just as the stars that God created were proof of God’s power to Abraham. Paul says we have the proof in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But, someone might say, we didn’t see Jesus rise. Well, neither did Abraham see God make the stars. Then how can He expect me to believe? How could He expect Abraham to believe? The answer is that we have evidence enough.
Abraham had a hope; he knew God had made him a promise. How else could that promise come to pass if God did not do it? Every human being in the world has a longing, a longing for good to be right, and truth to be true, and love to endure. How else is that longing ever going to be fulfilled if God does not do it? God promised He would do it. And Jesus outlined that promise this way:
John 5:32 He that hears my word and believes He that has sent me, has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
If I have been forgiven (that is what is implied by the statements: I don’t come into judgment, I am not condemned to death) then eternal life is the promised consequence.
But how can I know that eternal life is real? Jesus rising from the dead proves it is. Death has been overruled. The curse of sin has been overturned. And thus, Jesus’ rising from the dead proves that I have been forgiven. The promise has been fulfilled.
And if I have been forgiven, that means that I have been declared (reckoned) to be in the right with God; I am justified by the Eternal Judge.
There is only One Promise
Sometimes, particularly if you have Dispensationalist inclinations (and Darby is considered the father of modern Dispensationalism), we get tied up in the details of the various covenants that we find in the Old Testament. And we can certainly expect that being familiar with them is important because the New Covenant spoken of by Jeremiah (in chapter 31, and echoed in Isaiah) must have those Old Covenants as its backdrop. But if we step aside from those details and focus on God’s Promise, isn’t there only One?
From the promise given to Eve that one coming from her seed would crush the serpent’s head, through the promise to Abraham that his seed would bless all nations, to the promise to David that his son would reign over an everlasting kingdom, and forward to every subsequent promise that God would rescue His people… Aren’t all those One Promise? Namely, the Promise of the Messiah who would restore all things to the way God had planned from the very beginning.
In other words, the truth of the Gospel is also the heart of the promise to Abraham. The coming of the Messiah and the remission of sins through His sacrifice, is the way in which all families on earth would be blessed. They are one and the same Promise because there has always been only One plan of salvation, since Genesis.
Reckoned righteous versus Imputed Righteousness
The view I have been expounding is somewhat different from the standard reformed position. It hinges on the way we render that word “reckoned” versus rendering it “imputed”. Here is the standard Reformed position:
When Paul develops the doctrine of justification by faith alone, he is saying that when God counts somebody righteous on the basis of faith, it is not because He looks at them and sees that they are inherently righteous. Rather, they have been clothed by the imputation, or transfer, of the righteousness of Christ to that person by faith.
The reason I do not hold to this view is that I see nowhere in the Gospel any instance where Jesus teaches that the way into the Kingdom is only open to those that somehow “carry” His righteousness.
On the contrary, what I find in the gospel is that any hint of human righteousness is a fallacy and a false hope. The most humanly righteous of the people of Jesus’ day, the Pharisees, were not good enough to enter into the Kingdom (Matthew chapter 5). And anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount honestly must reach the conclusion that, if this is the level of “righteousness” required to enter in, we are all lost.
So, is the only way out of this quandary that we humans have to be given someone else’s righteousness?
Why? So that we can walk up to the Throne of Judgement and be admitted in because we are now righteous?
If this is so, why didn’t Jesus say so? To me, every explanation that I find in the Gospel of how we get to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is based on the forgiveness of sins. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
I don’t need to carry the righteousness of Christ on me, as some sort of camouflage cloak, to hide my sins from God’s eyes. God Himself already wiped away my sins (Psalm 103:12). Wasn’t that once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus enough to do that? God already declared me “right with Him” in His court.
The argument that we get Christ’s righteousness imputed to us in the same way that our sins were imputed to Him, is an argument from symmetry. And I don’t see how we can expect such symmetry. He, the eternal Son of God, chose to bear the sins of all mankind. He willingly took all that pain and all its consequences, for all people ever born and ever to be born. We can hardly fathom what that agony was like to One who was infinitely good. But He did it, out of Love.
That is enough for me. There is no equation, there is no balance on which you can put me anywhere close to Christ and tell me that “in the same way” He is going to put His righteousness on me. May it never be so!
If I have repented of my sins and believe on Jesus for their forgiveness, every verse that speaks about this in the Gospel says, I am saved. Again: John 5:32 He that hears my word and believes He that has sent me, has eternal life and does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. I am no longer condemned. That is, in the courtroom scene of eternity, I have been declared, by Jesus’ own words, right with God.
Now, we have a decision to make about what else, if anything, that means. Either,
I am saved and Christ’s righteousness is not imputed onto me
I am saved and Christ’s righteousness is imputed onto me.
Why does this matter?
I believe the first. I find no passage in the Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in which Jesus teaches that His righteousness is going to be transferred to us. It is all always about repenting, being forgiven, and following Him. (The latter, empowered by the Holy Spirit.) If this is so, then it should be impossible for any new “theology” (insofar as salvation is concerned) to be invented by the authors of the Epistles. Therefore, if we think there is such “new theology” in the Epistles then we must be reading them with the wrong glasses on.
This happens all the time. Because I do not believe in the doctrine of imputed righteousness, I don’t find it anywhere else in the New Testament. By the same token, people who believe in the doctrine of imputed righteousness will say they see it in lots of places in the New Testament. Does that difference make one of us saved and not the other? Not at all.
Then, why does this matter?
I claim that I am saved, that is, that I have eternal life, because I have been forgiven. “Period.” The other viewpoint appears to say: I am saved, I am guaranteed eternal life, because I have been made righteous. The first viewpoint believes I have been reckoned to be in the right with God because He has forgiven my sins. The second believes I have been made righteous because God has imputed Jesus’ righteousness onto me.
Which of these two worldviews do I want to have as I walk in this world and meet people who tell me, and prove by their actions, that they do not believe in the Gospel? In the first worldview, my reaction to such a person is “he has not been forgiven”. In the second worldview, my reaction would be “he is unrighteous.”
I would rather react the first way than the second.