God’s Mercy Surpasses His Justice (Tues. June 21)

The word of the day is “accounted.”   When we hear that God “accounts” faith as righteousness, we are likely to think of our salvation in terms of a law court. And if we use this metaphor for understanding the work of Christ for our justification, we may think of it as a legal acquittal of the debt we owe God for our sins.  Today we reconsider what Paul means when he says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness” (OSB 4:3).  We will present a contrasting view to the usual emphasis on justice.  This perspective stresses the mercy of God, His active benevolence that brings us into a restored relationship with Him.

In today’s reading of Romans 4:4-12, we arrive at the core of Paul’s defense of the Gentile mission.  St. Paul’s opponents insisted that to be members of the church, the Gentiles had to be circumcised and thus bound to keep the Law of Moses.  But Paul maintained that keeping the Law of Moses was not how one attains righteousness, a right relationship with God. Rather, in our passage, the apostle states, “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (OSB Romans 3:28).

Abraham Believed God and It Was Accounted as Righteousness

To argue his case, Paul reverts to the example of Abraham, the father of faith.  We have already read St. Paul’s pronouncement, “None is righteous” (Romans 3:11).  Having pronounced this divine judgment, St. Paul now proclaims the grace that saves us from the corrupting consequences of unrighteousness.  He quotes Genesis 15:6:   Abraham believed God, and it was accounted for him as righteousness” (Romans 4:2-3).  Paul thereby asserts that Abraham was not justified by “works.”  The Greek word that is often translated “to justify” is dikaioó, a verb that means “to render just or innocent” or “to deem to be right” (Strong’s 1344, 69).  In the passive voice, it means to be made right or to be declared right. We say that it refers to being considered righteous.

Paul argued that what established Abraham’s righteousness before God was not circumcision.  The father of faith had not been circumcised yet.  Nor can it be that it was because he kept the Law of Moses.  Abraham lived and died 450 years before Moses (Galatians 3:17).  Thus, justification is not by the works of the Law of Moses.

Abraham’s Willingness to Sacrifice Isaac Demonstrated Faith

Clement of Rome wrote, “What can we say to those who insist that Abraham was justified by works because he was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac at the altar?… Abraham piously believed that all things are possible with God and so exercised this faith. So even if Abraham was also justified by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, this must be regarded as an evident demonstration of a faith which was already very strong” (Explanation of Romans).

The term “ascribed” comes from the idea of taking inventory.  In the primary sense, faith was “credited” to Abraham.  God reckoned, that, is, He considered, estimated, or concluded that it was righteousness (Strong’s 3049, 152).  We might say that in God’s mind, faith is the equivalent of righteousness.  Faith, therefore, does more than cancel a debt.  It establishes our right status before God.

For Reflection

When we press the idea of “accounting” too far, we get the dominant idea of God as a judge who demands payment for the breach of his honor.  But that concept comes close to the idea that God’s motive for the sacrifice of Christ was to demand justice, not to offer mercy, to exact compensation for being wronged, not to restore us to a loving relationship with Him.

St. Isaac the Syrian Contrasted Mercy and Justice

St. Isaac the Syrian wrote: “Mercy is opposed to justice.  Justice is the quality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves, and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons.  Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and is compassionate… It does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion.  If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness” (St.-Isaac-the-Syrian 1984, 244).

Given this contrast, how can we best describe the divine motive for the sacrifice of Christ? Did He offer up Himself for the sake of God to right the scales of justice in the universe?  Or did He give Himself for our sake to put into effect the divine mercy and to bring us back to a righteous, that is, loving relationship, with God?

Works Cited

Clement of Rome. “Explanation of Romans” quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture, New Testament, VI, 110.

St.-Isaac-the-Syrian. 1984. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Translated by Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Brookline, Mass. : Holy Transfiguration Monastery.


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