Romans 5: 1-8
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b]to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 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.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Today I want to talk about Paul’s idea of justification by faith, referred to in our second reading, which is the central pillar of his letter to the Romans.
In using this term, Paul is drawing a bold contrast with justification through works under the law.
Justification through good works, defined through a moral or religious law, is a universal pattern in all human culture. It suggests that God or the gods are watching our behaviour, will look with favour on our good works and with anger on disobedience and sin, rewarding the former with crops, wealth, children, good fortune - in this life and the next - and punishing the latter. There is a vivid image in Islam, of two angels, one sitting on your left shoulder, the other on your right; one counting your good deeds, the other your sins, and both submitting their accounts on the day of judgment.
And whilst the gods judge in eternity, here and now, in this life, the power to judge, to praise or exclude, is delegated to religious leaders.
Paul’s insight, by contrast, is that, in the new Christian world, the law helps us only to the extent that it makes clear to us that we can never be saved by our own efforts, by our works. It is a sign which makes clear our captivity and our need for the freedom which is beyond.
And that freedom, the Kingdom of Heaven, is where we find the unconditional love of God, revealed in all his creation and most particularly through the teaching and the self-giving of Christ. We receive and enter into this promise through the gift of faith, which we receive from God.
Paul, trained as a Jewish Rabbi, is the first to express this truth in writing but he does not invent it. Firstly it is there, in partial and implicit form in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Judaism in which Paul grew up is both supremely a religion of the law as the path to salvation, but also one which yearns for the mercy of God beyond it.
For again and again the Israelites turn away from their God, and yet, while sometimes they are punished, each time God renews his covenant with them.
Today’s first reading from Exodus is, in a way, an illustration. Newly arrived in the wilderness, the people hear God speaking again his covenant, through Moses, and they reply: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” It is a moment rich in dramatic irony, for those listening, who had grown up hearing this story, knew just how fleeting that obedience would prove.
Justification by faith finds full expression in the teachings and life of Jesus. For he welcomes especially those excluded by the law, into the Kingdom of Heaven, into its freedom and its fullness. The good news is received firstly, in forgiveness and healing, by those whose hearts are open to the gift of faith and to its promise.
And at the same time Jesus condemns those teachers of the law who, as he says in Matthew 23, “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others” and “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”
This free entry, through faith alone, into the Kingdom of Heaven is at the heart of the message proclaimed by the early church at Pentecost and then by Paul.
However, the instinct to try and earn God’s love through works re-emerges in the medieval church, with its doctrine of purgatory, reduced by indulgences.
At the Reformation, Luther preaches again justification by faith alone, which he describes as, “the one firm rock… and the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine.”
Once more, in Protestantism, works reappear. For, as JC Ryle, a Church of England bishop puts the argument: “We are justified by faith without the deeds of the law. But the truth of our faith will be tested by our lives.” And so works become not our justification but the means by which the genuineness of our faith is assessed - which in practice amounts pretty much to the same thing.
The church today still struggles with the instinct to good works as a means of justification. For myself, I recall a look from a senior cleric when I admitted that I do not say the daily office, that mark of diligent priesthood. On other issues I will no doubt have given similar looks, in my turn.
So it seems, in every generation, we find it hard to accept that we are justified by the miraculous gift of faith, and through it God’s complete and unconditional acceptance of us. It’s as if we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe something as good as this. And so we lay those heavy burdens, on our own shoulders and on those of others.
I picture us like children on Mothers’ day morning, going into her bedroom, holding the gifts we have made with nervous pride, watching for the approval we desire, watching also that our sibling does not receive more than we. And of course our mother, and God also, loves the gifts we bring entirely because it is we who bring them. It all begins and ends with relationship, with love.