This moment in today’s Old Testament lesson, when Abraham puts his trust in God, comes very early in the Bible. Abraham is one of the first characters we really get a full story of in Scriptural history, and we meet him near the beginning of the book of Genesis, the first book in the Old Testament.
The story goes that God picked Abraham to be the ancestor of his chosen people. God designated him along with his wife Sarah to become the parents in faith of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. This reading we just heard records the moment when God is making that historic promise to Abraham. It’s a clear starry night in the desert, and God takes the initiative, as he always does, and speaks: God brought Abraham outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
This is not only the first place in the Bible that talks about God’s initiative to create the spiritual community we’re part of. It’s also probably the first place in the Bible that points toward one of the core principles we rely on as Christians, which in technical language is called justification by faith. Justification by faith is so important, according to the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde, that "where the church no longer speaks this word, it has lost its reason for being."
If it’s that important, perhaps we might talk a little about it in honor of this epochal moment in our Genesis reading today. Whether or not you happen to know the technical term “justification by faith,” which certainly many of us here won’t, if you have some familiarity with the Christian meaning system, even via hearing our Episcopal liturgy or hymns, you may recognize the idea, because it underlies everything we do. Without it, our entire Christian system of language and of living loses its internal coherence.
Justification by faith is the Christian explanation of how God makes people definitively secure in his love – an idea Christians value so much that we have many, many metaphors for it. Made right with him, welcomed into friendship with him, forgiven our sins, counted as acceptable, made his own, adopted into his family, given his life, indwelt by him -- whatever metaphor you want to use. The historic Christian teaching is that we are made right with God not via anything we do, but via relying on what God has done for us in Christ. Our acceptance by God is not anchored in us, but in God himself.
Now Abraham lived about as far before the time of Christ as we do after it, so obviously he could not possibly have framed what he was doing as anchoring his life in Christ instead of himself. But he could trust what he knew of God’s promise, and that was plenty: “Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” So God is already, even in the very first book of the Old Testament, laying the groundwork for this principle which we as Christians see coming to full flower in what God does in Jesus. God is already beginning to teach his people how he wants to bring us to him – not by our actions, not by our religious observance, not by trying to be a good person, not by anything that encourages us to trust in ourselves, but by trust in God alone. That is the truth that, technically, we call justification by faith.
In recent Anglicanism, we might look to how the chef and Episcopal priest, Robert Farrar Capon put it – you may know his culinary book The Supper of the Lamb. In his trademark colorful language, he writes, “God has done the whole job in Jesus once and for all and simply invited us to believe it. …Yes, it's crazy. And yes, it's wild, and outrageous, and vulgar. And any God who would do such a thing is a God who has no taste. And worst of all, it doesn't sell worth beans. But it is good news - the only permanently good news there is - and therefore I find it absolutely captivating.”
If Capon is a bit much for you, you might simply turn to more classical, older Anglicanism, and look to how the first framers of our Prayer Book explained it. (I’m quoting from the very top of page 870, if you’re interested.) Listen to this beautiful old language: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”
For anyone who was raised on the idea that God tracks your actions on a kind of scorecard, that he’s a moralist whose top priority is for you to be a good person, the news that we are justified by Faith only, anchored in God and not ourselves, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.
For anyone who was raised on the idea that, leaving God out of it, you had better try your hardest to earn the esteem of your parents by meeting their standards, or of your peers by meeting theirs, the news that we are justified by Faith only, anchored in God and not other people’s opinions, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.
For anyone who has gotten used to treating God as a vague spiritual force that you might use to gain some uplift or comfort, but that the important stuff in life is up to you and what you make of yourself, the news that we are justified by Faith only, anchored in God and not our self-expression, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.
For anyone who has messed up part of their life so badly, or had others hurt them up so badly, that it seems as if there is no way back to wholeness, the news that we are justified by Faith only, anchored in what God has done and not what we or others have, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.
For anyone who has assumed that God loves you more if you’re good than he does if you’re bad, the news that we are justified by Faith only, anchored in unshakable unconditional one-way love and not in conditional tit for tat love, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.
Now of course a large number of people have never really noticed that the church teaches this wholesome and comforting doctrine – it flies in the face of so many of our cultural values it’s hard to hear, I think. But among those who have noticed, there is, I think, sometimes a misunderstanding of it that turns on how you hear the word Faith, and I want just to address that quickly. As I said, the Biblical use of the word faith means reliance, trust, personal dependence. But outside the Bible, we also hear it used another way, to mean, you could say, “The Faith.” The system of teaching a religion holds. The intellectual ideas. The dogma of one religious system over against another.
Now if you assume that is what is meant by the word, you might want to pause at the idea of being accepted by God via “faith.” Why? Because that would seem to make religion a matter of opinions, as if the most important thing were what we think, including our ideas being right and other people’s being wrong. Which, you’ll note, actually throws us right back on trusting in ourselves instead of in God. It puts the anchor in our beliefs rather than in his love and action. Justification by ideas is not a Christian teaching. We’re not anchored in God by being right, but by trust. For Christians, what connects you with God is not thinking that as far as religious ideas go, you are right and others are wrong. Nor is thinking that as far as behavior goes, you’re doing a good job, or as good as most people anyway, what connects you with God. For Christians, Jesus is what connects you with God. Trust and reliance on what God has done in Jesus. And that is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.
Why is it full of comfort? Because your acceptance and your identity and your worthiness are secure. None of those things depend any more on the unreliable level of how good you are or how spiritual you feel or how hard you’re trying or how sincere your beliefs are or what you think about things, or whether you’re right or wrong just now, or what you did today or yesterday or will do tomorrow. Your acceptance and your identity and your worthiness depend on the only 100% reliable thing in the universe, God and what he has already done.
We sang about it on the way in today, in a hymn that has gotten me through more ups and downs in life than I can count:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.
What more can he say than to you he hath said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
…The soul that to Jesus hath fled for repose, I will not, I will not desert to its foes.
That soul though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
“We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”
And Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
The Forde citation is from "Justification by Faith Alone. The Article by which the Church Stands or Falls?" Dialog 27 (Fall 1988): 262. The Capon citation is from The Romance of the Word: One Man’s Love Affair with Theology, p. 20.