Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Reckoning

When we read of or hear someone mention reckoning, it is usually in the context of settling accounts. We use this in finance in relation to year-end in order to report earnings and pay taxes. In common usage the concept more often refers to an appointed time at which a debt must be repaid. In a biblical context, we see the financial aspect as it pertains to indentured servitude (Le 25:50, 52) and property (Le 27:18, 23). There is a finality in these arrangements that infer a certain objective judgment and complete separation—especially true in matters before God as in the decree to Noah after the flood:
Surely for your lifeblood I will demand a reckoning; from the hand of all the wild animals I will require it; and I will require the life of man at the hand of his fellow man. (Ge 9:5)
More poignant is the final judgment of Christ, commonly known as the ultimate day of reckoning, wherein all is made right: sin is judged, evil is banished, and all creation enters final, eternal rest. For the wicked, their reckoning is a cause of distress: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (He 10:31), However, the righteous have a certain hope of glory because they have already received the benefit of their reckoning, which St. Paul explores from the occasion of a promise that God gave to Abram and Sarai for a natural-born son (Ge 15:6):
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Ro 9:1–3)
The average Christian might look at Abraham’s life (personal call and task from God, periodic interaction with Him, promise of a miraculous birth) and ask, “How does this relate to me? Abraham was obviously in a class by himself, and I am not.” While his relationship with God was indeed special (call and promise of land, seed, and blessing), he is not the only one of whom we read received a certain reckoning of righteousness.

When Israel was camped near Moab, a plague broke out because the Moabites seduced the men of Israel with their women, notably a brazen defiance to the Lord by an Israelite man who took a foreign woman to his tent. When Aaron’s grandson Phinehas noticed, he thrust a javelin through both of them thus stopping the plague, after which the Lord commended his zeal with a promise.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, stopped My wrath from among the children of Israel when he was zealous with My zeal among them. So I did not utterly destroy the children of Israel in My zeal. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and there shall be to him and his seed after him a covenant of an eternal priesthood; because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel.’” (Nu 25:10–13)
The psalmist later remembered this event while comparing Israel’s incessant wanderlust with the Lord’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Then Phinehas stood among them and made atonement,
And the destruction ceased;
And it was reckoned as righteousness to him
From generation to generation forever. (Ps 106:30–31)
At this point, we might think that something is askew: Abraham was noted for his belief, but Phinehas for his works. What accounts for the apparent discrepancy? Looking more deeply, we can see that both men receive righteousness for the same criteria. When Abraham is introduced in Scripture, he is responding to a call from God, after which he receives the definitive promise of a son through whom the originally promised land, seed, and blessing (Ge 12:1–3) would come. Later, he would be asked to offer that son as a sacrifice, a command he willingly followed though not needing to fulfill. The writer of Hebrews looks back on these events and offers the common trait:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country,… By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac,… (He 11:8–9, 17)
We are comfortable with this concept of internalized faith with God’s subsequent declaration of righteousness, however, we stumble when coming to St. James’ summary wherein he states that Abraham was justified by his works:
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.… For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (Jm 2:18–24, 26)
The key lies in verse 23: And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Wait. Scripture was fulfilled? Yes. While Abraham received the righteous reckoning when he believed the Lord’s promise of a son, that reckoning was not fulfilled until he offered up Isaac: the act demonstrated faith in the promise. In the case of Phinehas, then, we are presented the deed and reckoning without knowledge of a prior declaration: it must be assumed. This assumption is not without warrant because we are told elsewhere that “the righteous (just) live by faith” (Hb 2:4; Ro 1:17; Ga 3:11) and “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hb 11:6). For Phinehas to have pleased God in such a way as to merit an everlasting reward of priesthood (Nu 25:12–13), the work he performed would have needed to come from obedience borne of faith, not that earned or merited by virtue of the person or deed.

We can see from the above examples that Abraham’s faith was not superior to that of anyone else, rather what faith he had was sufficient. This same faith from the same Source is given freely to all who believe even when the outworking appears spotty. Indeed, all who appear in the “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11), save for possibly Abel and Enoch, are notorious in some measure for lapsing into sinful conduct, yet all received commendation for the work accomplished. Believers today are called to live by this same faith and also are given the responsibility of walking in the good works God has created us to perform (Ep 2:10) to the end that we receive in Christ the fulfillment of our being reckoned righteous.


Jesse said...

I wrote an article on the Roman Catholic misuse of Psalm 106:30-31:


Steve Bricker said...


Thank you for your response. I read your article and agree that Phinehas' deed, taken out of context, can lead to RCC works righteousness.