And [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Genesis 15:6 ESV
Genesis 15:6 is perhaps one of the most important verses in the Old Testament. "And [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness." In other words, Abraham believed God, and God credited that faith to Abraham as righteousness.
A word on terms. Our modern English concept of the word righteousness is a bit limited. We would probably say that righteousness amounts to law keeping. That's not wrong. It's just not the fuller picture. In the Bible, the word righteousness is connected to two other concepts: covenant and relationship. A righteous person is a person who keeps the terms of a covenant (a pact or agreement or today we might say contract) made between two parties and as such enjoys all the benefits of a good relationship with the other party. Righteousness, then, is covenant keeping with the enjoyment of the positive relationships between parties that comes as a result.
What about that word "believed" in Genesis 15:6? In the context of Genesis 12–15, God had given Abraham a series of promises. They were clear and specific. Abraham would become a great nation, kings and queens would come from him, his name would be made great, he would be blessed and become a blessing to all the families of the earth, God would bless those who bless Abraham and curse those who curse him, God would give him and his descendants a land as an everlasting possession, and God would be Abraham's God and the God of his descendants and they would be his people. In a dramatic way, God affirmed the oath by walking through the middle of animals that had been cut in half, stating, in essence, "May I be like these animals if I don't fulfill my word."
Abraham heard all that God had promised, and deep within him there welled up a resounding, "You, O God, are faithful and will fulfill your promises, even though I can't understand how, even if I don't see their fulfillment within my own lifetime!" That is belief. God makes a promise to someone, that person hears the promise, and he or she is so convinced that God is faithful to do what he's said that the person's life is forever changed as a result.
Apparently, the full import of Genesis 15:6 had failed to register with the Jewish people in the days of Jesus, even among those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. It is for that reason that Paul wrote the book of Galatians. Even after Jesus's resurrection, some of his followers believed that in order to come to God, first a person had to become a Jew and submit him- or herself to the laws recorded in the Torah. They believed that in order to be considered righteous before God—that is, in order to be counted among those who had kept God's covenant and thus enjoyed a right relationship with him—a person had to adopt the Jewish law and customs. Paul emphatically argues that God sees a person's faith—not a person's Torah-keeping or his cultural practices—and counts that person's faith as righteousness.
You can see how interwoven racism and this whole business of justification by faith really are. Spiritual racism is the belief that I'm more worthy in God's sight because I fit more exactly into this particular cultural mold. That was the mindset of some Jews in the first century. We would do well not to fall into a 21-century version of the same trap. That is, we would do well not to think that in order for any man, woman, or child on the planet to be counted as righteous before God, first he or she must adopt our cultural norms, act like us, think like us, dress like us, talk like us, or fit into any other of our biased notions of correct and proper behavior. God will count a person righteous solely on the basis of whether or not that person has heard the promises that God has made in Christ and is convinced from the heart that God is faithful and will fulfill those promises, even without understanding how or when and even without seeing their fulfillment in his or her lifetime.
People are not included or excluded from the kingdom of God based upon any other factor. Genuine faith constitutes the single criterion. When we invent other criteria and judge people's stance before God based upon those criteria, we are doing what the Jews in Galatians did, and we are guilty of spiritual racism and of believing another gospel, a gospel completely foreign to Paul and the other apostles.
The New Testament gospel requires that both Jews and Gentiles take a step beyond their cultural backgrounds and put their faith in a common Christ, the Christ who is a "stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles" (1 Corinthians 1:23). Absolutely no room for anything that even remotely smells like an attitude of "You must become like me and my culture to come to God." Coming will be by faith alone or it won't be at all.
Putting to death the deep-seated root of spiritual racism,