Sometimes what “everyone knows” turns out to be wrong. George Washington didn’t really chop down a cherry tree. Ben Franklin didn’t really tie a key to a kite string and fly the kite in a thunderstorm, touching it to discover that lightning was electricity. He would have died.
And whenever Paul talks about “the law,” everyone knows he means the Law of Moses – the group of teachings and instructions that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai that include the ten commandments. So they contrast “righteousness by the law” with righteousness by faith by saying that Christ replaces the Mosaic law.
But, John Wesley said, that view runs into some problems – not the least of which is that God chose the Hebrews as his people long before they camped at Mt. Sinai. He made a covenant with Abraham, not Moses, at least five hundred years before Moses was born.
No, the covenant of the law, which Paul says boils down to, “Do this, and live,” goes back much further. It was the covenant God established with Adam and Eve. They were created without sin, and were in that way holy, as God was holy. The covenant had an “assumed” part and a “spelled out” part.
The assumed part was that Adam and Eve, as well as any other human beings who might live after them, would completely and fully love and obey God. Every action, every word, every thought would be in service to God, and each service would be done with all the strength and power they had. Love of God and of God’s creation would be their only motivation, from their first breath to their last.
The spelled out part was God’s spoken command to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This was the righteousness of the law. By “righteousness,” he meant “rightness in relationship with God.”
Fulfilling this covenant meant life. Breaking it meant death. And only perfect obedience to it could fulfill it, which meant even one mistake broke it.
Why then, Wesley asked, would anyone trust in the righteousness of the law? After all, it was designed for perfect people as their way of maintaining an already-existing relationship with God. None of us are perfect, and our relationships with God are broken.
It’s the same as changing a tire with a hammer – even if you manage to do it… heck, I don’t even think it’s possible, so I don’t have any idea what it would look like.
Righteousness by faith, though, comes from a covenant that’s designed to allow fallen people to re-establish a broken relationship with God. That’s what it was made for. It doesn’t ask us to do what we can’t.
We don’t have to say, “Well, first I need to stop this sin, and then I need to begin this good work, and then I’ll probably be OK.” No sale, Bubba (Wesley didn’t say that). There are way more sins to stop than we can count and way more good works than we have time to do. If I seek righteousness by faith, I have to realize three things: 1)I ain’t good enough. 2)I ain’t never gonna be good enough. 3)God will take me anyway.
Again, we can see where faith has to play its role. If we could somehow manage to be good enough, we would know there was a minimum requirement we could reach. We could know we were this close, or we were above the line and we could coast, or whatever. And we would probably turn our achievement into a source of pride or a stick to beat on other folks with.
But the righteousness by faith doesn’t let us brag on what we’ve done, because we’ve done nothing. And it doesn’t trust to some set of standards or reaching a hash-mark of salvation, because it can trust only in God’s love. God is merciful, and God loves us, so we are made right in relationship to him by the work of his Son.
And you know, in the end, when it comes down to relying on me, or relying on God, I think I’d rather rely on God. I know my track record.