Tension June 14, 2020
The reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (5:1-8) includes some of the most fought-over theological statements in the New Testament. The issues behind the words still resonate today.
In the opening verse Paul wrote, Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…. and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Pauls’ words make it clear that Jesus Christ is the peace-bringing agent. As a human being, he acted on our behalf to reconcile humanity with God. He bridged the gap between the human race and God that had been opened by the sin of Adam. Christ gave the experience of peace to those who lived their lives in harmony with the ways he taught. Beyond this, he gave us a future hope of sharing the glory of God.
The questions arise from the meaning of justified by faith. When we use the word justified we tend to think in legal terms, such as acting within the law and within our rights. But Paul seemed to use the word more broadly. The benefits of peace and hope of sharing the glory of God situate the meaning in a context of a full life in which the relationship of each person can flourish with God in the present, as well as with the hope of glory in the future. Justified describes a state of spiritual well-being in relation to God.
The phrase by faith also raises questions. Is it sufficient for salvation to say “I believe” or do we have to follow through with behaviour? Would it be better to translate the word “faith” as “faithfulness” so that we are justified by faithfulness: by acting in a way that is consistent with what we say?
One problem with “justification by faithfulness” is that it makes humans responsible for their standing before God by accepting the gift of faith(fulness) It gives humanity an element of control, when Paul seems to be clear that our justification is through our Lord Jesus Christ, not through our own actions.
Throughout Romans, Paul uses the word faith not just to refer to a personal belief but also to a relationship to God with behavioral consequences. Paul does not regard ‘faith’ as a thing (a noun) that one ‘has’ but as an activity (a verb) of ongoing, active trusting or relying on.
The phrase justified by faith was central to the Reformation of the church. Martin Luther wrote, “…the doctrine of justification is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” For Luther, salvation by faith alone in Christ alone is the principle upon which all other teachings rest.
Luther understood justification as being solely the work of God. He believed that Christians receive righteousness entirely from outside themselves; that righteousness not only comes from Christ, but that the righteousness of Christ remains outside of us but is merely imputed to us (rather than infused into us) through faith. Apparently, Luther used the graphic metaphor that justification was like snow covering human excrement. It didn’t alter what lay below but hid it from sight. Moreover, faith, itself, is a gift from God.
In contrast, the Catholic church taught that justification changes us and makes us acceptable to God. Christ’s action wiped away our sin so that, by salvation, we become the person that God, in his love, imagined us to be.
Luther’s study of justification by faith led him to question the Roman Catholic practices of penance and righteousness… some of those practices were outrageous financial greed. Nevertheless, the theology behind the practices was based on Christ’s own call to repent which appears in the gospels (Matt 4:17, Luke 5:32, Mark 6:11-13) Faith was the human’s response to God’s invitation.
Luther taught that salvation is Christ’s gift of God’s grace, received by faith alone. He preached that the “righteousness of God” was not God’s active, harsh, punishing wrath demanding that a person keep God’s law perfectly in order to be saved, but rather something that God gives to a person as a gift, freely, through Christ. He saw salvation as God’s gift without any reliance on human merit.
This is heady stuff. It seems to ‘split hairs’. Yet it goes to the heart of how we understand the role of faith in our personal salvation. One way the debate appears in contemporary culture is in the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” by which some people want to express their idea that there are values and ethics to which people of good intention can agree but which do not require faith in a personal god, let alone Jesus Christ. Spiritual goodness is the result of their action, thought and imagination. It is a choice that permits a wide latitude of acceptable behaviours.
Paul’s letter challenges this notion by emphasizing God’s love and generosity by adding that while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Paul said that God’s love is an unconditional gift. Nothing that we alone could do would have restored right relationship with God.
Matthew’s gospel for today (9:35-10:23) picks up this theme of God’s generosity. Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. It seems that Jesus had no prior conditions for curing people. The cures were both a generous gift to the afflicted and a sign of the validity of his claim to divine authority. The cures were not based on the merit of the people with diseases or injuries but on the free offering of Jesus. They also unleashed the potential that each person had by freeing them of the limitations caused by the injury or illness.
Next, when he sent out his disciples for their first missionary exercise, Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness… Jesus sent these twelve out with the following instructions: “Go …to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment… Again, this last phrase talks about God’s generous giving by endowing them with these curative powers. They are not to use the powers to enrich themselves.
· What does “faith” mean to you? Is it familial, that is, the way your family raised you? Is it a practice that includes Sunday worship and prayer during the week? Is faith a relationship with the trinitarian God? Is it a power that unleashes personal potential? Is faith a way of knowing something that is not available any other way? Something else?
· Recall a time when someone gave you a wonderful gift that was generous and unexpected. Or think of someone you had liked from a distance, who thrilled you by inviting you into a relationship. Did either experience make you feel valued? Imagine Jesus’ impact on the people he cured. He valued them and freed them from the diseases or injuries that had limited them.
· What would it have been like for Jesus’ disciples when they realized that they had the power to cure, raise the dead cleanse lepers and cast out demons? Would they have felt favoured? Would they have been tempted to profit from it or relished the sense of personal respect that came with the power? Would they have recognized that the power was a gift and emulated Jesus’ behaviour? Or all of the above?