The righteousness of faith


The righteousness of faith

Published: 17th March, 2024

The Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 17.1-7,15-16
Romans 4.13-end
Psalm 22.23-end
Mark 8.31-end

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Having preached through the Book of Genesis last year the story of the Promise to Abraham, or rather Abram as he was, should be familiar to you.  God makes Himself look silly by promising something wholly unlikely to Abram, namely that he and his wife would have a son in their old age; and yet the promise comes true, and Isaac is born: Abraham indeed becomes the father of many nations.

St Paul makes use of the story of the promise to Abraham in his Epistle to the Romans.  The context for this Epistle, as for so much of St Paul’s writing, is the debate within the early church as to the extent to which Jewish laws are applicable to Christians.  Perhaps a little unexpectedly, gentiles proved more receptive to the preaching of the gospel than the Jewish people, and this raised some awkward questions: the original core of Jewish Christians, people such as Peter, James and John, would have been used to keeping the Jewish law, and would also have not been used to eating with gentiles, who were considered unclean.

How were Jewish and gentile Christians to relate to one another?  Did gentile Christians need to keep the Jewish ritual law?  Did they need to be circumcised?  Did gentile Christians need to keep the Old Testament moral law?  St Paul’s answers to these questions would have a profound effect on the development of Christian doctrine and practice.

St Paul sought to counter those who wanted to impose the Jewish ritual law, and particularly circumcision, on gentile Christians by appealing to the story of the promise to Abraham.  St Paul’s argument is that Abraham is called not because of circumcision or obedience to the ritual law, but simply by the grace of God.  When God makes His promise to Abraham, the giving of the ritual law to Moses is still very many years away.  And even the tradition of circumcision is only accepted by Abraham after he has received God’s promise, not before.  Abraham is accepted by God not because of anything he has done but by God’s grace.  And it is what St Paul calls the righteousness of faith, Abraham’s profound trust in God, that is the key factor on Abraham’s side of this relationship.  And so through faith, and by God’s grace, rather than through the works of the law, we too share in the promise, we to become descendant of Abraham.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the crowd that if they want to follow Him they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him.  This instruction of course applies just as well to us and to anyone who wishes to be a follower of Christ.  It is an obvious text for the season of Lent, both because of its emphasis on self-denial, and its focus on the Cross, coming as it does as immediately after Jesus’ very explicit prediction of the fate that awaits Him.

What are we to make of this instruction?  What does Jesus mean when commands us to deny ourselves and take up our cross?  We might think it all sounds a bit dreary and grim.  And sometimes we can think of the season of Lent in that way, a dreary and grim time for us to give things up and deny ourselves, before at last having some fun again when the spring really gets going.  And we might think that it sounds like jolly hard work, all this self-denial and cross-carrying.  But I think that would be to misunderstand what Jesus is saying.

Jesus is very clear in today’s gospel that following Him is “life”.  Whatever we are called to give up to follow Him, even if we are called to give up life itself, we are assured that the life we have in Him is something far greater.  The cross that we are called to bear is for us light and life; Christ crucified is the wisdom of God and the power of God.  We should not see it as a burden; the Saviour’s Cross has already carried the weight of our sin.

And reading today’s gospel alongside St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, perhaps we can see that Jesus is speaking of that same inner disposition that St Paul calls the righteousness of faith.  Following Jesus will no doubt mean hard work at times, but that is not the main thing, and it is certainly not the starting point.  We start from the inner disposition, the sincere desire to follow Jesus, to walk in His steps, to obey His commands, to take on ourselves His whole way of living and dying.  We deny ourselves, we turn away from our self-centredness, we seek to look to Jesus and to our neighbour.  We trust in Him alone.  This is the righteousness of faith: it is not a matter of our effort, it is a matter of God’s grace and our receptive inner disposition.

And of course when we are committed to Jesus from within this will manifest itself in positive action.  That is an important part of our response to the grace of God.  But our actions are not the defining factor in our relationship with God.  We do not pay our way with God, we do not work our way into His good books.  If we think that way we run the risk of falling into self-righteousness, which is one of the surest ways of making ourselves insufferable to other people, not to mention spurning the grace of God.  Our actions are not the defining factor: it is God’s action in Christ that saves.

So through this season of Lent may we remember that the Cross for us is light and life, that Christ crucified is the wisdom and the power of God.  Taking up our Cross and denying ourselves is not some grim and dreary chore, but a way of light and life and love, even our delight and our joy, because it is in Christ and not in ourselves that light and life are to be found.  And so whilst it is right and good to take on some pattern of self-discipline during this season of Lent, let’s be sure also to attend to our inner life, to turn wholeheartedly to Christ and to seek to follow in His steps, in the way that leads to life eternal.

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.