Justification By Faith: Getting the Balance Right 18th June ’17
Exodus 19:2-8a Romans 5:1-8 Matthew 9:35-10:8
Following on from our recent experience of the climax of Jesus’ ministry on earth, as he returned to be at his Father’s side on Ascension Day, and as a result was able to send the Holy Spirit to teach, encourage and inspire the disciples, we have now entered the long Sundays of the church season of Trinity, as we work out what all of this means in practice. It’s all very well hearing about what God has done for us, and is prepared to do for us now and in the future, but what, if anything, are we supposed to do in return?
We are so used to this “exchange principle” approach to life – [if you invite me to stay for a while, I will in return invite you to come and visit me, and so on,] that we apply it to our understanding of God too. “Forgive me for doing this awful thing, and I will put £50 in the collection plate next time I’m in church.”
Our readings this morning reveal both the truth, and the fine balance which has to be preserved, about what God has done for us, and whether we are expected to do anything in return. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a small segment of which we heard as our second lesson, is a wonderfully crafted exploration of what Paul calls, “Justification by faith.” Paul tells us that God has always dealt with humanity mercifully; his nature did not change with the coming of Jesus. Rather, Jesus came to make abundantly clear to us what we had been unable to understand up to that point, that our relationship with God should be one of peace, trust and hope, because of all that he has done for us, without our deserving it, not that he makes enormous demands of us to behave properly or we’ll be rejected for ever.
In the Gospel reading we heard of Jesus’ tremendous compassion for all the people he met, and his concern that there were so many needy people who one man alone could not meet and heal. So he sent out his disciples to assist in his work, long before the events of his death and all that followed it. They carried his authority, so they did not need to worry about what they could achieve; he would work through them. Their teaching and healing work was a natural result of their being closely linked to him, not something they struggled to achieve by themselves. Their faith in him came about, not because someone had taught them abstract theological ideas, but because of what they saw him do, and trusted him implicitly.
Yet there seems to be in humanity a deep sense that if anyone does something for us, we have to earn it in some way, and that includes our relationship to God. To some extent, this flaw was a reason for of one of the major upheavals in Christian history, at the Reformation, as notable people such as Martin Luther and John Calvin reacted against what they felt had been a perversion of the Christian teaching about redemption and grace. There seemed to have been a “justification by works” development in Christian thought, whereby so long as you did the right things, or made restitution by penances and pilgrimages, you could consider yourself to be in a right relationship with God. This was definitely not what Jesus’ life, death and resurrection taught us about our relationship with God.
Today’s epistle, with Paul’s statement about being justified by faith, was a source of inspiration for Luther. He said that faith has three basic elements. It’s not simply knowledge of historical facts; it includes an element of trust; and it unites believers to Christ. He used a telling image illustrating our need to trust God, saying that it’s like a man being in great danger and ending up on the edge of an ocean, yet not daring to launch out in the ship which offers him rescue and safety. He doesn’t trust the ship which could save his life, so he stays where he is and is never saved, because he will not get on board and cross over. Faith is not just a matter of knowing that the ship which might save you exists; it’s about stepping into the ship and entrusting ourselves to it.
So the Christian concept of justification by faith has two sides to it. On the one hand it speaks of God’s transforming work of justifying us, reuniting us to him through the work of Jesus; that this leads to our being made holy and acceptable to him; and finally giving us all the help we need in living out our calling as Christians. On the other hand we live out our lives in faith, hope and love, having simply and gratefully accepted what he has offered to us. We just receive and respond, finding a new sense of freedom and release from all that has oppressed us before. In knowing that we are loved by God, we are freed up to be able to love others.
This justification is God’s unmerited acceptance of us. We have not, and cannot, do anything to deserve it. Luther’s succinct summing up of it is that it is given us by Grace alone, in Christ alone, and received by faith alone.
The distortion happens when we see anything we do, including our act of faith, as something which deserves God’s offering to us. Even our act of faith is just the appropriate response of trust and acceptance of God’s unconditional acceptance of us. He is not demanding that we do anything in return; just recognize his love for us. Anything we do springs out of that recognition almost automatically.
So the faith which justifies us is not deserved or as a result of our tremendous efforts. As well as that it is not simply a bare assent to abstract propositions. It’s not a case of believing things about God, but believing in him. That the things he has said and done, and the promises he has made, are absolutely reliable, without any need for doubt.
After 400 years of disagreement about the understanding of the concepts of justification by faith compared with ideas about the need for justification by works, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church met in 1999 and signed a joint declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It said, “By Grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” In other words, anything we do is also a result of God’s work in us; even our apparently laudable actions are the outcome of his Spirit being given to us and inspiring our lives.
Many years before this declaration was made, Paul Tillich, a German theologian who ended up in a concentration camp and died there having fallen foul of Hitler’s regime, summed all of this up very simply. In its very simplicity it probably also reveals why we as proud and independent minded human beings find it so difficult to actually carry it out. He said, “Just accept the fact that you are accepted, accepted by a power that is greater than you.” How can that be so hard?