Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Faith as Righteousness

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

In Christianity, righteousness is not a matter of fulfilling the Law (of Moses) and never was. It is true that, if you could fulfill the Law, you would be righteous. Yet you would not be righteous because you had fulfilled the Law, but the other way around: you would have fulfilled it, as Christ did, because you were already righteous.

The corollary to this is that faith is not some temporarily acceptable substitute for true righteousness. It is not as if God said, “Okay, so since true righteousness is impossible for you, I’ll tell you what. I’ll graciously settle for faith and count you as righteous if only you have faith.” On the contrary, faith always was the true righteousness. The Law of Moses, which St. Paul says was “added because of transgressions” until Christ should come, was to show faithless men who did not love God roughly what faith and love would look like. The Law was our “custodian” to keep us in line until then, and to be a preliminary revelation of God’s will. The Law, then, was the temporary arrangement, but it was no substitute for faith. In fact, fulfilling it was impossible without faith, and attempts to carry it out even to the minutest letter were unacceptable without love of God, and such love is impossible without faith.

Faith, then, is and always was the true righteousness.

What, then, is faith? Almost all Christians know it is not mere belief. Some say it is belief plus trust, but faith in the Christian sense is much more even than that. It is trust such as becomes the premise, the foundation, the working principle, of our lives. If we were computers, faith would be our operating system. Now a working principle that does no work is what? An absurdity. A logical contradiction, nothing real at all, except on paper, like an Escher drawing.

That is why the greatest chapter in the Bible on faith, Hebrews 11, is also the greatest catalog of heroic deeds.

To acquire true, Christian faith means — by definition! — that the foundation of your life shifts. It shifts, specifically, from whatever it was (“self-fulfillment” usually, or self-preservation) to Christ. Note carefully: not from self-fulfillment via secular means to self-fulfillment through Christ! but to Christ in His own right, for His own sake. Christian faith, then, is a new identity. It means you have faith in Christ such that He becomes the new principle of your existence.

Now to seek self-fulfillment, or self-preservation, ironically, is ultimately self-destructive. (Matthew 16:235, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, Luke 17:33) This is because it is a selfish enterprise, and accomplished at the expense of others. It is the opposite of love and the opposite of true personhood, for which the human being was created. Faith means giving that up in favor of Christ, in the confidence that He, Who is the meaning of your life, will do with it whatever is best. Faith means donating your life to Him.

When you have done that, you have become righteous. And God recognizes this new relationship with Him as righteousness. This is what He really wants from you, has always wanted, not because He is power-hungry, not because to be believed in flatters Him in any way, nor yet because, like some human lover, He yearns for his love to be gratified by being returned. Rather He wants faith and love from you because it is the only way of saving you from yourself. If He is said to guard His prerogatives jealously, it is never in a self-seeking sense, for love never seeks her own. It is all for us.

When you have donated your life to God in Christ, you have become righteous, and God recognizes you as righteous. Yet, things aren’t that simple. There’s much more to the story than that, because this is only an incipient faith and an incipient righteousness. "He who does righteousness is righteous," as St. Peter tells us. When you first acquire the righteousness of faith, it is like a tiny mustard seed, “which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32) The large tree is the goal, mature faith, perfect righteousness.

How does faith/righteousness grow? The same way a child does. By living, acting, practicing, learning, struggling; see previous post. As St. James puts it, faith is made perfect by [its] works. (James 2:22) The more you love (actively! not just in your imagination), the more you enlarge your capacity to love. The more you act on faith, the greater it grows. Obedience in small things makes possible (and easier!) obedience in larger things, until one day, you reach the goal (Romans 8:28) of being made like Christ and perfectly one with Him.

Are not the perfections of Christ infinite? How can you attain to all of His infinite perfection in one short lifetime? You cannot. Whoever told you that was necessary before God would accept you misunderstood. The truth is, if you are a person of faith (and love, without which we are nothing at all), you have already entered Paradise, have been made to sit with the saints in the heavenly places, and death will not disrupt that. Death will merely let you see it more clearly, no longer dimly, as in a clouded mirror, but now unveiled to you in all its glory. Or rather, in all His glory, for Christ Himself is our Paradise.