Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:3, among other places)There is a theory of our righteousness before God that is called "imputed righteousness." That terminology comes from Romans 4 in the AV (King James) translation, where God "imputeth righteousness without works" (Romans 6:6 AV). How exactly we should understand that has become a matter of some discussion over the ages, and currently again in the latest round of atonement debates.
Peter Kirk recently wrote,
Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. (Emphasis added. H/T Henry Neufeld.)"Imputed righteousness" is often described as -- or thought of as -- a legal fiction. The weight of the argument is sometimes even rested on the word "imputed" as if that word meant an inaccurate accounting, a bookkeeping entry without basis in fact. However, a study of that word shows that the normal meaning is making an accurate accounting, not an inaccurate accounting.
I wouldn't for a moment dispute that, on the bookkeeping analogy, God does some very generous bookkeeping in our favor. "Forgive us our debts" presents itself to my mind as the most obvious example. Still, it is not quite a perfect analogy for a view that imputation is a legal fiction, because forgiving our debts is not a legal fiction; once the debts are off the books they are gone for all intents and purposes.
The question becomes, then, when we are counted righteous by faith, whether this is a legal fiction (imputing against reality) or whether there is any reality to being righteous by faith, any real righteousness involved. A number of questions arise in light of Paul's teachings in Romans 4 and in light of some of the subsequent debates on the topic:
- Is faith righteous?
- Is being accounted righteous by faith a gift? Is it gracious?
- Is being counted righteous by faith merited or unmerited?
- Do we merit the attainment of eternal life?
- Are we righteous in and of ourselves?
There is no such thing as being righteous "in and of ourselves." That is the mistake of Eden, seeking a right status in and of ourselves instead of with God. Righteousness then primarily means being right with God. As I mentioned in a previous post, the pivotal event in humanity's fall from grace was distrusting God. Righteousness before God is trusting God, and from trusting God it follows that we will trust his ways and keep his word.
So I would argue that faith is righteous, not by legal fiction but by the inherent nature of things. This leads straight to the question of whether faith should be credited to us as if it were merit on our part. If we take this same view of faith -- not changing to another view of faith but maintaining the same view of faith as trusting God to keep his word -- then such faith is not any credit to us, since we do not create such faith. Neither can anything create this kind of faith in God except for the knowledge of God's faithfulness. That is to say that God is faithful, and when we realize this it is called by the name "faith." Here "faith" cannot mean mere belief in the existence of God, which is a faith no greater than the demons possess. But we mean knowing God as trustworthy and faithful, as the one who keeps his promises and fulfills his covenant.
From this it follows that while faith merits nothing, it is still genuinely righteous. Through that faith we are again put right with God, not because faith was meritorious, but because God had reconciled the world to himself through Christ, not counting our sins against us, and we were implored to be reconciled to God. Faith is the human side of reconciliation with God: a confession of faith is a confession of God's faithfulness. Those who are genuinely righteous, then, are not preoccupied with merit of their own, since they trust God who justifies sinners. Instead, by faith, they seek after the things of God: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.
On this view, faith is genuinely righteous. But it is a misunderstanding of both faith and righteousness to think of faith as our faith as if it did not depend wholly on God's faithfulness, or to think of the righteousness of faith as our righteousness as if it consisted of something other than trust in God, the recognition of God's righteousness, God's mercy, and God's love.
We do not, then, merit the attainment of eternal life as if it were by works (however assisted) or as if it were an obligation of God's to us based on our works, that he must award eternal life simply to satisfy justice. Eternal life is a gift, one whose source is the overflowing generosity and joyful charity of God towards his children. No human act could ever earn eternal life. Nothing within our power could obligate God as a matter of justice to grant us an eternal reward. It is his faithfulness and love, it is his grace, which says to us that he will raise us from the dead. It is his everlasting love which is the source of his promise of everlasting life. It is his great mercy which speaks to us of the forgiveness of our sins, which are many and great.
Abraham was fully persuaded that what God promised, God was able to do. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.