The righteousness of faith
My first thoughts about this passage are defensive because Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of faith” is often understood through Martin Luther’s writings to mean something given to us as a gift rather than something we earn by doing good works. I have not found Martin Luther’s dichotomy between two kinds of righteousness helpful because it rips Paul’s thought free of its foundations in the Old Testament teachings of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, from whom Paul takes his mandate to be the apostle to the nations through a ministry of reconciliation.
Isaiah and the prophets insist that true worship and acts of righteousness go hand in
hand. Luther reduced Abraham’s faith to one act of obedience rather than a life through which Abraham bore witness to the one true God by being the first to worship God alone. I think of the story told in the Jewish midrashic tradition, in which Abraham is left to tend his father’s idol shop. When his father returns, he finds the idols smashed to pieces. Abraham points to the one remaining idol with a club propped in its hands as the culprit. His father states bluntly that it is not possible for a lump of clay to do anything. By conceding to his father’s point, Abraham makes his first statement as a monotheist.
Just as the prophets found that true worship of God could not be separated from righteousness, I see in this passage an affirmation that the beginnings of righteousness lie in Abraham’s worship of the one true living God, creator of heaven and earth. The act of justifying the ungodly is the act of bringing the nations into a worshipping relationship with God not through the redemptive act at Sinai, but when God extends forgiveness to the nations through Jesus’ death and resurrection. God’s righteousness lies in God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham, that he becomes a source of blessing for all nations. Paul understands Jesus’ gift of grace as the fulfillment of that promise because Jesus brings Jews and Gentiles into one worshipping body.
Paul’s appeal to Abraham reminds me that we find God’s righteousness through worship of God, in which we recount the narratives of God’s mercy, repent of our failure to enact God’s mercy towards others, giving thanks for the forgiveness and blessings we receive and praising God for God’s goodness and the goodness of God’s creation. We go into the world inspired to honor God and Christ by enacting their righteousness through acts of mercy and offering the blessings we have received to others. There is no dichotomy between two kinds of righteousness.