Paul here, still defending the Gospel against the Jews, seeks to show, using he whom the Jews consider the great patriarch, that the Law is of no profit in absentia of faith, and that through faith are we made righteous and not through works of the Law. The Jews, who claimed that they alone were righteous, and that through their lineage, being descendants of Abraham and therefore given the Law were shown by the apostle that the Law had no power unto righteousness. Not only did the Law have no power unto righteousness, but neither did their very lineage. Paul’s proclamation here would fly in the face of the very Jews who rejected that salvation was the necessary response to faith; thus faith was the necessary foundation of salvation.
Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, was righteous in the sight of God. Neither Jew nor Gentile could deny that fact. Thus, the question posed becomes, by what means was he righteous? See, this becomes so important in Paul’s dealings with the Jews because at the one, they proclaimed righteousness for the sake of the fact of being the seed of Abraham, and at the second, the receivers of the Law. Thus, to them, it was due to their lineage and reception of the Law that they were made righteous. Rather than challenge this notion, Paul addresses it a different way; if adherence to the Law alone were the foundation of righteousness, then those claiming such would be declaring Abraham himself unrighteous, as the Law had not yet been given in the time of Abraham. There was the demand for obedience, which always has and always will be the reciprocal side of the Covenant, whether Old or New; but the Law itself had not come into existence during the time of Abraham. Thus to declare that only adherence to the Law could make one righteous would be the declaration of the unrighteousness of all who came before the Law, including Abraham.
However, if our righteousness is through Faith, then; all who believe can be made righteous through their faith, as was Abraham; and thus obedience is to the Lord, not the Law. It was not Abraham’s works or obedience that made him righteous, but rather his faith, displayed (as we see numerous times) by his works. It was not his leaving of his native land that created in him righteousness, but rather his faith and obedience to the One who commanded it. It was not his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but his faith that the Lord would provide a more fitting sacrifice. His works, while a necessary display of true faith, were not the foundation of righteousness, but rather the fruits of it. We see the same with Noah, who was not saved because he randomly built an ark in the middle of the desert, but rather, who received revelation from the Lord and, because of his faith, believed that revelation; and thus was given the means prescribed unto salvation. Had he no faith, then he would never have received the revelation, neither acted on it. Our salvation is neither faith alone, nor works alone, but rather it is faith sufficient to lead us to work in cooperation with the Lord; it is faith which provides the medicine and works which cause us to take it (to refer back to the idea of salvation as treatment for a sickness).
If our righteousness is works, teaches the apostle, then it is not a gift to be received, but rather our just reward. I go to work every morning, my boss owes me a paycheck. That isn’t grace, it is “payment for services rendered.” To use Paul’s terminology, it is a debt. I work for someone, they owe me for the work, creating a debtor relationship; and their repayment is according to the amount of work that I’ve done. One could often boast that they’ve worked harder, dedicated more time, etc. If, on the other hand, my payment is not based on my merits, but only on the grace of my benefactor, then I have no room to boast. Jesus alludes to this in the parable of the workers (Matthew 20:1-16). A man hires a worker in the beginning of the day for a set amount, and then one at the end of the day for the same amount. The former, at the end of the day grows envious of the latter, and the man states, “did I not pay you what we agreed on? Why are you angry with getting what you agreed to?” Each man was offered an amount, and each agreed to the reward for their services, but no man had any right to boast because their payment was not based on their work, but on what the man offered to them to begin with. Each man still had to do their fair share of work, but neither had the right to boast and neither had the right to argue, because each knew that regardless of their work, their reward would be the same.
Put another way, when it is through my own work that I obtain something, then I can boast in my own ability to receive it. But, when a man boasts about a gift that he has received, it is not in his own ability that he is boasting, but in the graciousness of the giver. This is precisely why Paul was such a great image of the grace of the Lord; being the most sinful of sinners previously, he became the greatest icon for the grace of the Lord. And though his salvation required many sacrifices and labors, it was all in the name of the Lord, and all to bring glory to His name. Paul could never have become the man that he became through his own willpower; and yet it still required the conscious decision to follow the Lord; it required the willful decision to go from town to town teaching the Gospel. Paul had much work to do, but it was not the foundation of his salvation to do that work, but rather as a result of it. As he “worked out his salvation,” he was constantly being led to do more and more work as evidence of that salvation.
This is the image of our salvation. In the same way as you can never earn a spouse, but through action or lack of effort you can lose him/her; so it is with our relationship with God. You can never “earn” a marriage, you can never “earn” a relationship; but through your actions you can either grow in your relationship or you can sacrifice it on the altar of self. Likewise, you can never earn you salvation, you can never earn your reconciliation with God, but once you have turned to Him, you can likewise turn away from Him. We see this in virtually every book of the Old Testament. And when we turn to faithlessness, when we turn away from Him, then we are no longer “walking in the faith.” We are seeking our fulfillment elsewhere, the world, other people, ourselves; we are “walking in our own ways,” seeking after sinful indulgences rather than seeking after the kingdom.
Our faith is a relationship; well is it so often compared to a marriage through the Holy Scripture. Works will earn us neither spouse nor salvation, as they have no power to either. However, much as consideration to wedding vows will help us to overcome earthly temptation, so too will salvation empower us to overcome spiritual temptation. In the same manner, however, we must be willing to abide in those vows, whether nuptial or spiritual, and do whatever work is deigned necessary to obediently follow them. No, adherence to the Law will not save us, neither will any physical bloodline be the source of our righteousness. Salvation is the gift offered to any, of any lineage; and adherence to the Law will never spawn righteousness, however, righteousness spawned from true faith will necessarily spawn adherence to the Law. And the test is relatively easy; if the Laws are, to you, an encumbrance to be dreaded, then it is not in faith that you are adhering to them. In faith, the Laws of the Lord will be a blessing to be celebrated, understanding that they are given to us of the Lord for the sake of our own righteousness, for our continually growing communion with Him. He will never give us a command that He Himself will not empower us, through His grace, to attain. However, to receive that, we must always walk in the faith, knowing and believing that He will, in fact, empower us.
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.