This is Part 9 of a guest series by Dr. Ronn Johnson.
My last post concluded with the recommendation that the primary effect of Jesus’ death when viewed in priestly terms (that is, when we speak of Jesus dying as a sacrifice) found him making an already-righteous worshipper fit for entering sacred space. Most of my evangelical friends would find this purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial death to be too limiting, of course, though I think that their concern is due to a miscalculation of how important sacred space was in ancient Near Eastern religious culture. The dread associated with officially approaching a holy God (beyond the privilege of offering up a spontaneous prayer, for example) will play a major role in the Big Story of the Bible, whether in describing Israel’s worship system in the OT or in celebrating the “new and living way” to approach God in the NT. So we will certainly revisit the issue of sacred space as I get to the construction phase of my project. For now let’s look at the next brick in the evangelical wall:
The OT teaches a constant tension between God’s justice and God’s love
I quoted from Timothy Keller’s opening article in Zondervan’s NIV Study Bible in part two of this series when trying to explain the Sin Paid For model of the Bible’s story. Here is the quotation again, this time offered as an overview for the meaning of this brick:
“Through two-thirds of the Bible, the part we call the OT, an increasingly urgent, apparently unsolvable problem drives the narrative forward. God is a God of holiness and is therefore implacably opposed to evil, injustice, and wrong, and yet he is a God of infinite love. He enters into a relationship with a people who are fatally self-centered. Will he bring down the curse he says must fall on sin and cut off his people, or will he forgive and love his people regardless of their sin? If he does either one or the other, sin and evil win! It seems impossible to do both. The resolution to this problem is largely hidden from the reader through the OT, though Isaiah comes closest to unveiling it. The glorious King who brings God’s judgment in the first part of Isaiah is also the suffering servant who bears God’s judgment in the second part. It is Jesus. Victory is achieved through [Jesus’] infinite sacrifice on the cross, where God both punishes sin fully yet provides free salvation. Jesus stands as the ultimate protagonist, the hero of heroes. Therefore, because the Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace and because it is all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jesus could tell his followers after the resurrection that the OT is really all about him (Luke 24:27, 45). So everything in the Bible—all the themes and patterns, main images and major figures—points to Jesus” (The Story of the Bible: How the Good News about Jesus is Central [in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, 2015]).
I appreciate Keller’s clarity in explaining his view. He is making several bold assertions along the way, however, with many of them open to immediate challenge by anyone who is simply reading through the Bible. I can think of seven such challenges: 1) if there is an “urgent, apparently unsolvable problem” driving the OT narrative forward, it is fair to ask where this problem is stated; 2) if there is a necessary curse of God which “must fall on sin and cut off his people” because they are “fatally self-centered,” it is again fair to ask where this idea is taught; 3) by using the provocative word regardless in the question “will [God] forgive and love his people regardless of their sin?” Keller implies that God’s forgiveness includes the idea of downplaying the seriousness of sin; 4) if “sin and evil win” when “God forgives and loves his people,” we are led to ask how or why this would be true; 5) if the “resolution of this problem [of sin vs. forgiveness] is largely hidden from the reader through the OT,” we are allowed to consider whether this problem ever existed at all; 6) if the “victory achieved through the cross” provides “free salvation,” it is fair to ask why salvation and righteousness were described as available before the cross; and 7) if the “Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace,” we are owed an explanation as to why the OT regularly celebrates God’s justice and grace together.
It is this last point, of course, which concerns our brick. And this is no ordinary brick; Keller calls it the Bible’s basic plotline. Recall as well that Keller is not saying this in an essay tucked into the back of a library, but in the lead article of a major publisher’s best-selling evangelical study Bible. All this is to say that, in challenging this view, we are (in the opinion of many, but not all) stepping outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.
That being said, I think that a challenge to this brick can be surprisingly simple. Part of me wonders if I have missed something here, for when reading the Bible from left-to-right I find no tension between God’s justice/righteousness and his grace/mercy/love. These attributes often appear side-by-side when describing Yahweh, signaling that they are complementary ideas, even one leading to the other:
Psalm 36:5-6, 10: Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the great mountains; your judgments are a great deep; O LORD, you preserve man and beast. Oh, continue your lovingkindness to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright in heart.
Psalm 85:10: Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Psalm 89:14: Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; mercy and truth go before your face.
Psalm 103:6-8, 17: The LORD executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the children of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. The mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.
Psalm 111:3-4: [The LORD’s] work is honorable and glorious, and his righteousness endures forever. He has made his wonderful works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.
Psalm 116:5: Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful.
Psalm 145:7-9, 17: They shall utter the memory of your great goodness, and shall sing of your righteousness. The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The LORD is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.
Jeremiah 10:24: O LORD, correct me, but with righteousness; not in your anger, lest you should bring me to nothing.
Daniel 9: 16, 18-19: O Lord, according to all your righteousness, I pray, let your anger and your fury be turned away from your city Jerusalem . . . . O my God, incline your ear and hear; open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by your name; for we do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of your great mercies. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for your own sake, my God, for your city and your people are called by your name.
Hosea 2:19: I will betroth [Israel] to me forever; yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy.
Romans 3:24: [We are] being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Romans 5:17, 21: For if by one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ. So that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Titus 3:7: That having been justified by his grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
These verses seem to set a clear path for understanding Yahweh’s justice and love as working hand-in-hand, not in tension with each other. Because God had promised to love and care for his own, he was considered righteous or just (these are based on the same Hebrew word) in honoring this commitment. In this sense being righteous is a virtue available to anyone (e.g., Ps 112:4: “[The man who fears the LORD] is gracious, full of compassion, and righteous”; cp. Ps 37:21; Prov 21:21; Isa 57:1; Hos 10:12; Mic 6:8).
But this is where things can get confusing for the modern evangelical. Keller is apparently using “God’s righteousness” as a reference to a demand for moral justice as we would understand legal fairness. Used this way, I understand how he can see righteousness and grace as almost opposite ideas. And he may be right. The lexical meaning of tsaddiq in Hebrew, however, does not support his use of the term. The word’s basic meaning simply refers to being properly aligned, or to being found “in order” (Ludwig Koehler, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the OT), which means we must always start by considering what standard is in play before saying that God is aligned with that standard. In reviewing the above verses again, I believe it can be argued that the standard God is aligning to is the promise that he would bless the family of Abraham. Think again of the audience that originally heard these verses. So in saying “God is righteous,” the writer was saying that God would keep his side of the covenant. The original reader would have been shocked to hear this. The gods of the ancient Near East were notoriously bad at keeping their promises. If anything, they were the ones who played justice and love off one another, threatening either at any time. But because Yahweh was righteous, because he was a promise-keeping God, he would necessarily be merciful/gracious to those he loved. This is what made Yahweh so unique, so wonderful, so worthy of worship.
I therefore recommend tossing aside this brick. There is no tension between God’s justice and his love, and in fact the opposite is true. It is because God is righteous that we know he will be loving and gracious to his own. This teaching will become a foundational element in our Big Story of the Bible.
Loyalty to God (“faith”) is necessary for salvation
The evangelical tradition has strongly argued that individual faith is necessary for salvation. I believe we are right on target here, though some issues of definition may still come into play. My understanding of faith/belief starts with the Hebrew words for faith (ʾaman) and loyalty (ʾamuna), which are basically the same words with different endings. Faith and faithfulness thus become interchangeable ideas in the OT. In the NKJV, for example, ʾaman is translated as “believed” in Genesis 15:6, then as “faithful” in Numbers 12:7; ʾamuna is translated as “faithfulness” in Psalm 36:5, then as “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4. So one meaning bleeds into the other, much like stress and stressful and care and careful are built on the same words in English. When I was a pastor, I recall sometimes leading the bride and groom in reciting old marriage vow “To thee I betroth my faith” during a wedding. I sense it has only been recently that when someone says “faith” we don’t also presume they mean fidelity/faithfulness.
The same relationship between faith and faithfulness follows through into the NT, where the Greek pistis (“faith”) is basically the same word as pistos (“faithful”), just with a different ending (the –os ending on a Greek root often carries the meaning of –fulness or –ful). So pistis gets translated in the NKJV both as “faith” (Matthew 9:22) and “faithfulness” (Romans 3:3) and pistos gets translated as “believe” ( 1 Timothy 4:3, 9) and “believer” (2 Corinthians 6:15, 1 Timothy 4:12) and “faithful” (2 Timothy 2:2).
I would recommend Matthew Bates’ Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017) for a book-length defense of this idea that biblical faith refers to loyalty. It is not until the sixteenth century that Protestant theologians made the meaning of faith to become something to be believed as opposed to something we do (showing allegiance is more than mental assent; it requires an act of the will). You may have heard of this as the faith vs. works question, which really is the result of Luther’s and Calvin’s reaction to the medieval theology of their era.
(Just last week Susan and I went to a Presbyterian church while on vacation, and it struck me how confused Paul would have been by the sermon. The pastor was preaching from Galatians 2:16, and he said that the “works of the law” mentioned there were any of those things that people did to earn their salvation, and that Paul wanted people to believe in, or put their faith in, the finished work of Christ instead. So salvation is a belief issue as opposed to a doing issue, the pastor said, and he piled on verse after verse about the virtue of faith. I think Paul would have liked the sermon for its emphasis on faith, but he would have struggled with what the pastor meant by faith as an English word. Paul’s concern in Galatians was not Roman Catholic legalism, as Luther saw it, but the fate of God-fearing Gentiles who were being told that they needed to add specific rules of Judaism [like circumcision, Sabbath, kosher, and other “works of Torah”] to their loyalty to Jesus in order to become authentic members of Abraham’s family. No, Paul argued, all a person needed was loyalty to Jesus to become an inheritor of God’s OT covenant promises [Gal 3:26-29]. As for the sermon, I think Paul would have been concerned that the pastor gave his audience a passive description of faith—as though it was the opposite of active obedience—and that he did not describe faith in terms of becoming loyal to Jesus while turning from the worship of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. This is how Paul’s Galatian audience would have understood it.)
This understanding of faith becomes important because it adjusts the story of the Bible back to the beginning. When Abraham is said to ʾaman (“believe”) Yahweh in Genesis 15:6, Yahweh in turn considered Abraham righteous (tsedaqah). This would have been an outrageous idea to the ancient world; could a human be considered “right” with a deity due to simple (inward) loyalty? Deities usually demanded all sorts of ritualistic rule-keeping and sacrificial hocus-pocus. Clearly what was at stake was Abraham’s allegiance, or his worship of one god over another (cp. Joshua 24:2). The ripple effects of this idea will be felt throughout the rest of Scripture whenever people wondered how Yahweh, the deity of Israel, was to be honored. This was new territory, for no other god had ever been approached just through inward loyalty.
If you are following my thinking this far, it should become apparent why ʾaman and pistis are never used in the partial sense in the Bible. When used in describing a person’s relationship to a deity, a person was either considered faithful or they were not. No one was considered kind of faithful to their god. For example, Paul used pistos in 1 Corinthians 6:15 to describe Christians: “What part has a pistos [faithful person] with an unbeliever?” So the opposite of being pistos was being a non-Christian. In the same way, Paul starts Ephesians with “To the saints who are in Ephesus and pistos [faithful people] in Christ Jesus” as though he is talking to a single group of Christian people (cp. Col. 1:2 as well).
One more benefit of this view of faith comes in noticing that the Bible says that we will all someday be judged by inward realities (John 7:24), by the secrets we carry (Rom 2:16), by all of our hidden thoughts (1 Cor 4:5), and even by what we do (1 Pet 4:7; Rom 2:11; James 2). This is exactly how loyalty works. Faithfulness (loyalty) is an inward disposition, especially (in the context of most biblical storylines) answering the question of which god a person worshipped. So when Paul told the Philippian jailor to “Believe [pisteo] in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31), notice what he was saying as well as what he was not saying: Paul was not telling the jailor to try to follow the moral imperatives of Jesus’s teaching (works), nor to merely believe (mental assent) in Jesus’ finished work on the cross, nor even to become faithful to Jesus in some kind of behavioral sense. Quite simply, Paul was telling the jailor to become loyal to Jesus and to stop worshipping any other deity.
So is loyalty to God (“faith”) necessary for salvation? Absolutely. I appreciate my evangelical heritage for getting this one right, provided we work through what faith means. So keep this brick, preparing to use it as a foundational element in the Big Story of the Bible.
If you would like to respond to this post, I welcome your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will certainly reply.