Justification By Faith
The text from today’s second reading of the Daily Office Lectionary is a passage central in Christian theology, particularly for the reformation. While it was not one of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (October 31, 2017), the phrase “justification by faith” became the central slogan of the Reformation.
Luther’s context was very different from ours. He lived in a Europe which would not have characterized itself as “Western civilization” (a term which only came into common use 150 years ago) but as “Christian”. The Catholic Church had an established role in the state and community; there was no separation between church and state. There was only one church, one faith, and it was the role of the secular rulers to support the ecclesiastical leaders in suppressing heresy, false faiths, and novel ideas. While frequently ecclesiastics and sovereigns clashed over religious matters, it was usually over power and the question of who gets to say what the one church would be. Individuals – as saintly figures – were important as examples to the whole people of God, but individuality and non-conformity itself was not celebrated or prized; people defined themselves in terms of where they were from, who they were related to, and what their socio-economic class was. While not everyone was a saint, everyone thought of themselves as Christians.
Luther’s take on Paul’s Letter to the Romans changed all of this. While there had been opponents to the hegemony of the Roman Catholic church before, Luther and his successors managed to unleash an energy that created lasting competition for the proclamation of the gospel. As Europe (both Catholic and Protestant, contra Weber) became more wealthy, the role of individual faith and responsibility became more important. The question was less the faith of the ruler than the individual’s faith; it did not matter which denomination one belonged to but whether one had the right kind of faith.
Small libraries have been created over the questions of the relationship of faith, justification, grace, and atonement, and I don’t intend to repeat them here. Instead, looking at the reading, what jumps out for me is that what follows of faith and justification is the identification of the believer with Jesus Christ, so that they boast in sharing the glory of God and in the sufferings that parallel Jesus’s own.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
When Paul uses the term “we” here he is rhetorically putting himself in the place of Gentile Christians. Paul, prior to being called by direct revelation of Jesus to be an Apostle to the Gentiles, would have understood himself as being a faithful Jew and blameless under the law, and thus being justified already. Having been called and subsequently baptised Paul no longer felt himself constrained by Torah observance, except when it served his purposes.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Several insights emerge in this passage. First, the death of Jesus is seen as the means by which the ungodly are reconciled to God. The ungodly are those of no faith, and so have no good works either – people self-condemned by not following the Torah (if they are Jews) or the law written on their hearts (if they are Gentiles). But Paul sees the number of the godly – whether Jew of Gentile – at best as pretty minuscule (and later interpreters understood it as being none). Addressing Gentiles here Paul claims that the death of Jesus is an atonement between these ungodly and God. Again, when Paul uses the term “sinners” he is really thinking of the Gentiles, who unbelieving, idolatrous, and perverse, were subject to the coming wrath of God. Paul riffs off of the atonement as “reconciliation”, “salvation”, “justification”, and “peace with God”. It is difficult to say if Paul clearly distinguished between these words. It may simply be that he piles them on in order to get at the mystery of the Atonement.
Paul talks about how “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.” Again, is this a consequence of justification by faith, or is it coincident and an aspect of the same phenomenon? I tend to think it is the latter – we want Paul to be more precise, but when talking about Atonement precision of language becomes very difficult. Paul and other Christians were dealing with profound spiritual experiences which they sought to put in words but could not be captured by any particular language. Thus they saw Christ’s death upon the cross as a “sacrifice”, “expiation”, “a ransom”, a “glorification”, and a “deliverance from sin and death”. We need to be careful not to read Augustine, Luther, or Calvin into Paul’s language, where they sought clarity when there was simply rhetorical force. The disputes that theologians dealt with in their own time might not be resolvable by an appeal to scripture, because in their urgency to find arguments and explanations to help them they may have misread the passages.
What is clear to me is that I am justified by faith in Christ, and that the love of God has been poured into my heart. I do not worry about whether I am right with God, because I know that God loves me, and had acted in my favour centuries before I was born. For me the issue is how to respond in faith in a way that would in some way match the matchless gift.