God’s Justice: A Shifting Standard?
Has God’s standard for justice shifted from Old Testament righteousness to New Testament salvation? That is, does God allow Christians to be saved by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but demand of believers in the Old Testament moral righteousness? The premise of the Christian gospel is: “there is none righteous, not even one.” Because of original sin, human nature is fallen, and mankind cannot merit God’s favor on its own. Our unrighteousness makes us guilty offenders before God, owing Him a debt that we cannot repay. Yet, certain biblical characters in the Old Testament are called “righteous.” Right from Genesis, Noah is described as “a righteous man; blameless in his time,” and Abraham as having righteousness “reckoned…to him.” How is it that there is none righteous, yet there were some righteous? Is Christianity, perhaps, an inconsistent faith or does it believe in an inconsistent God?
But, why ask this? Why does the apparent inconsistency matter? Well, our answer has profound implications on the truth of the gospel. We necessarily deny the faith-based gospel once and for all if we affirm that moral perfection made some just before God. If Noah and Abraham were just before God because they were sinless, it would theoretically be possible for any human being at any point in history to be just in the same way. If so, mankind would have paid the debt by itself; it would need no Christ to pay on its behalf. And, if there were nothing for Christ to do, there is nothing that He could have done. His death would have been ineffectual—powerless to save and futile in acquitting. This logic makes clear that it cannot be that some rare souls in the pre-Christ era were just before God on account of their own righteousness, yet the rest of us remain eligible for salvation through Christ. Either God accepts, and has accepted, people on the basis of self-merited righteousness, or He does not, and never has.
So, to unlock this puzzle, we need a right understanding of “righteousness” as used in the Old Testament. Such righteousness referred not to moral perfection; rather, it is a righteousness God imputes on the basis of one’s faith. Abraham is the archetype of this. The Bible states, emphatically, that “[Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness [emphasis mine].” Abraham was righteous only because he responded to God’s call in faith, and so God paid his debt of sin in advance of Christ’s coming. In the same way, Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” not because he was “righteous,” but he was righteous because he found grace. As “men began to call upon the name of the Lord” after the Fall, so Noah was made righteous. Further, these biblical accounts do not even hint at the sinlessness of these people. Abraham lied about his wife, Sarah’s, identity, while Noah got drunk and lay uncovered. Righteousness, clearly, could not have been moral perfection.
This solves the puzzle we started out with: there is none righteous in that none is morally perfect; the righteous in the Old Testament were so only because their debt was paid by faith in the future Christ, whose death redeemed the “transgressions that were committed under the first covenant.” In the end, it is Jesus’ blood that pays any person’s debt, and it is by faith that both we, and “the men of old[,] gained approval.” And, God’s standard for justice? It never shifts.
At this point, one wonders: what about the Mosaic Law, and doing good works? It certainly seemed as though some in the Old Testament were righteous because they fulfilled the Law. King David often appealed to the Lord to reward him “according to [his] righteousness,” as did the other kings in Israel’s history. People like Job were also described as “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil.” This sense of righteousness is linked to one’s works, and does not seem to be simply a matter of faith in God. Such righteousness ought to be understood as “the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship.” [a] Those who upheld the Law were righteous insofar as the Mosaic Law required of them. But, crucially, this sense of righteousness does not itself accrue enough merit to be right before God.
Instead, obedience to the Law was a means through which the Israelites’ faith was manifested, not a substitute for that faith. The Law, at its core, was a privilege given for Israel, the chosen nation, to know God’s will and decrees; it did not replace the grace (unmerited favor) by which it was chosen. As Paul argues, “the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later [than Abraham], does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise”. Since justification is based on God’s promise received through faith, law-keeping itself is powerless for, and irrelevant to, justification. One can outwardly keep the Law without inwardly believing in God, and still be unrighteous. Even if people like King David could be righteous in this narrow and moral sense, their ultimate, eternal righteousness was nonetheless based on their faith as sons of Abraham. “That no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘the righteous man shall live by faith.’”
More importantly, however, moral righteousness’ irrelevance to justification does not imply its unimportance. The emphasis on obedience in the Old Testament speaks of the importance of not abusing one’s status as the chosen of God as license for sin. It is because we are made righteous, and made new, that we are empowered to obey God, and we are not to cheapen that saving grace. The freedom Christ bought for us is the freedom from the curse of sin—not the freedom to turn back to it.
In sum, what can we affirm about righteousness and God’s justice? For one, God’s justice is unchanging. It is demanding. No one cannot fulfill it on the account of moral perfection, and the only way we can attain it is to have faith in the One who has attained it for us. The apparent contradiction between Old Testament righteousness and New Testament salvation is only illusory, for God’s standard never shifts. We know, too, that a faith that saves is neither dormant nor undetectable. Our imputed righteousness is demonstrated by our empowered capacity for good works and obedience towards God. Far from being inconsistent, the Old Testament reveals far more consistency than we think—regarding both meriting God’s justice and manifesting His righteousness. As it was for the men of old, so it is for us today.
1 Romans 3:10 (New American Standard Bible, and for all Biblical citations hereafter)
2 Genesis 6:9
3 Genesis 15:6
4 Genesis 15:6
5 Genesis 6:8-9
6 Genesis 4:26
7 Hebrews 9:15
8 Hebrews 11:2
9 Psalms 18:23
2 Samuel 22:21
10 Job 1:1
11 Galatians 3:17
12 Galatians 3:11
a Katz, Art. “Righteousness in the Old Testament.” No pages. 1 September 2015. Online: http://artkatzministries.org/articles/righteousness-in-the-old-testament/
Dinnie Ee, BR ’18, is majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics.
atonement, faith, grace, injustice, justice, sin