Finding God’s Favor without Doing Anything

Some Bible verses are almost impossible to interpret properly—on the first read-through, anyway. Take Malachi 3:18, for example: “Then you shall again discern between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.” When I read this verse, I practically can’t help but think only of intrinsic righteousness—that is, a righteousness that is mine by effort. I can only be considered righteous if I serve God—that is, if I somehow merit God’s favor.

It is tempting to make this assumption when reading a plethora of Bible passages, including the stories of Noah and Mary. Both of these individuals received the Lord’s stamp of approval. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8). “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). It is easy to translate this favor as resulting from their righteous lifestyles. But in both of these cases, the words translated as “favor”—one Hebrew and the other Greek—literally mean “grace.”

By definition, grace is God’s favor to those who have not earned it. Otherwise, it would not be grace (Rom. 4:4). If a person could attain God’s favor through merit, God would, in essence, be giving him something that He owed him. But God owes us nothing because He already owns everything that exists (1 Chron. 29:11; Job 41:11; Ps. 50:12).

God wasn’t rewarding Noah or Mary for human righteousness. He was simply giving them favor they didn’t deserve. That is what grace is. That is how God works.

God chose the Israelites as His special people, not because they were mighty and prosperous, but because He is loving and faithful (Deut. 7:7-8). Similarly, Paul shows us in 1 Corinthians that God shows His grace, not to the strong and powerful, but to the weak and lowly (see vv. 26-31). Angels announced the arrival of the Son of God to shepherds, not royalty. Over and over again, we see God bestowing favor on the undeserving.

Even in cases where a person exhibits a certain level of verifiable righteousness, it is still ultimately God at work in that person’s integrity. For example, when Abimelech took Sarah to be his wife, he did not know that she was actually Abraham’s wife. He was, to a certain degree, innocent. So when God came to him in a dream and threatened him for taking a married woman to be his wife, Abimelech responded by saying, “Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? . . . In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:4-5). After acknowledging this integrity, God revealed that it was actually the result of His restraining grace: “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her” (v. 6).

It is easy—and common—to see obedience as the key to God’s favor. In contrast, Scripture points us to saving faith, which connects an unrighteous person to the righteousness of God. Once this connection is made, then obedience follows. A sinner is first declared righteous through faith before he demonstrates righteousness through obedience. So when Malachi 3:18 references the righteousness that serves God, we know that something else has already taken place—the scandalous righteousness that consists of nothing more than believing God when He makes a promise.