Thursday, November 3, 2011

What He Had Promised, He Was Able Also To Perform

The apostle Paul spent much of his epistles speaking about the law of Moses and the grace of Christ.  He, like Abindai before him, strove to convince his people that, while the law of Moses was good, created as a "schoolmaster to bring us to Christ" (Galatians 3:24), it was only through Christ, and not the deeds of the law, that salvation could be obtained.  It was a strange position for a man like Paul to take.  By his own admission, he kept the law with exactness, and had honored it throughout his life, "after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee" (Acts 26:5).  Said he, "If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith" (Philippians 3:4-9).

As a man who had lived his whole life striving for one brand of righteousness, Paul was now bailing out of the old way, counting it "loss for Christ."  How very odd!  What seems even stranger is his insistence that he's discovered a new brand of righteousness, which he calls "righteousness which is of God by faith [in Christ]."  But what does it mean to be righteous by faith?

To Paul, it doesn't seem to mean that we should abandon righteous acts.  "What then?" he asks, "shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid" (Romans 6:15).  Nor does it mean that verbal proclamation of Jesus as Lord is sufficient for salvation: "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

Paul says that Abraham, the father of many nations, was made "righteous by faith."  But Abraham lived before the Law was given--and yet we regard him as patriarch and claim his promised blessings as our own.  In what way, therefore, was Abraham righteous?

"For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness... Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.  How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision... Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all... Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be" (Romans 4:3-18).

Abraham "against hope believed in hope."  "And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb: He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform.  And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness" (v. 19-22, emphasis added).  Abraham was counted righteous because he heard the word of the Lord, and acted on it, going into a strange land, "hoping against hope" in the promise of a child in his old age, his wife long past her childbearing years, traversing the mountain with his son Isaac, not understanding God's requirement to sacrifice him, but "Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:19).

But Abraham did not act blindly, Paul says.  Abraham's righteousness--and, by analogy, our righteousness--isn't a measure of blind obedience to a list of rules.  Abraham obeyed because, as Paul put it, he was "fully persuaded that, what [God] had promised, he was able also to perform."  Abraham's belief in God's power and promise was not a passive declaration of testimony--it was a fire that burned brightly, that spurred him to action.  He believed God when God promised him a land, a posterity, and an eternal priesthood--and his actions were based on that faith--his was righteousness, not by law, but "by faith in Christ."

I believe it works the same way with us.  God is not interested in our obedience for its own sake--because He enjoys collecting a host of automatons.  Rather, He wants us to understand and embrace His power as we learn how to use it.  He wants us to trust Him in our joys and in our extremities, to rely on his promises--even against hope, to believe in hope.  He wants us to be fully persuaded, as was Abraham, "that what he has promised, he is able also to perform."  When we are filled with that certainty, our righteousness will come by faith, and not by law.  It will flow out of us in love, not be squeezed out by coercion.

Our faith in God's ability and determination to keep His promises then becomes the motivating principle for our actions.  Our righteous works flow from that belief--after all, why would we bother praying unless we believed that God was able to keep His promises to answer those prayers?  Why bother repenting unless we believed that God was determined to keep "the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins?" (Moroni 10:33).  Why would we share the gospel with our neighbors unless we believed that God was able to keep His promises to send His Spirit to testify of its truthfulness?  All of our good works thus find their most natural basis in an understanding of God's character, power and fidelity--an assurance that what God has promised, He is also able to perform--in our lives, and in the lives of those we love.  Thus the salvific "righteousness by faith" is not a mere belief, but is a faithfulness conditioned on a belief, or a certainty, that God is able to keep His promises, that God will keep promises--and therefore, that when we keep our promises to God, we can with surety look forward in faith to a better world.

Or, as Ether put it, "Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God" (Ether 12:4).