Justification by Faith Alone: New Challenges
30 October 2017
Jurong Christian Church
SCRIPTURE READING: JN 15: 1-5
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is within this context of pruning so that both the Catholic and the Lutheran communion could bear more fruits that we are gathered here this evening to commemorate the Fifth Centenary of the Protestant Reformation.
Thanks be to God, 500 years have passed, and today, it is an occasion for us to reflect with greater objectivity and without the rancor of the past, how this event could be for us an occasion of grace and reconciliation for the whole Church. Five hundred years ago when Martin Luther raised the question of justification by grace through faith alone, it was intended to reform the Church of corruption. But it was also clouded by religious nationalism and thus what was a theological issue became also a cause for further division and polarization. Unwittingly, it became a tool for political ends.
So without these distractions today and free of polemics and bitterness but in a spirit of a common search for a greater unity and collaboration between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church, as Church, we can once again focus on the issue of justification by grace through faith alone, to understand its implications for our times today. Right from the outset, we must affirm that this central doctrine of faith no longer divides Roman Catholics from the Lutherans. On Oct 31, 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation arrived at a joint declaration on justification by grace through faith.
What is there to thank the Lord for the Reformation that has taken place? Firstly, we must thank Martin Luther for reminding us of the central doctrine of the Christian Faith, namely, that we are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone. This is not to say that the Church ever forgot this doctrine. It was implicit. If it were true that the Church believed that justification is through good works, then Christ’s coming would not have been needed at all. What the Church wanted to underscore was the need for us to cooperate with the work of grace. In other words, being justified by faith, whilst true, requires the manifestation of good works. This is what St James said, “Faith without good works is dead. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’” (James 3:17f) Indeed, we must affirm that it is not good works that saved us. Yet, it is also true that without good works, faith would be lacking. Good works is the result of a “faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6) Apart from the grace of God, there can be no good works. So, the good works that we do is the result of God’s grace. There is nothing for us to boast about even when we do good works, since they are the product of grace.
Unfortunately, this emphasis on the cooperation with the grace of God in Christ was turned into good works as the way to merit the grace of Christ. Sometimes, Catholics by their actions indirectly give the impression that salvation is through good works. On the contrary, justification by grace through faith in Christ means that good works is the consequence of being justified, loved and forgiven in Christ. Only through the reception of this Good News that we are loved unconditionally, forgiven and accepted by God, can we be transformed from a sinner to a saint. Otherwise, we continue to live in fear and in self-rejection because we believe that we are not worthy enough to be loved unless we prove ourselves through good works and merits; that we need to earn the love of God and of others.
For the Lutherans, there is the other danger of turning costly grace into cheap grace, which Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”. Cheap grace is the most deadly enemy of the Church. It is grace without price. It is justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. In other words, we continue to live like the rest of the world, living under sin, not grace. When we do not live out the obligation of Christian discipleship following from this grace we have received, justification by grace becomes a license for sin and for living a worldly life. We continue to sin and yet rely on Christ’s forgiveness without any real intention to live the life of grace. This would be a perversion of Martin Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” This is what St Paul also warned us, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:1f)
When Martin Luther expounded this doctrine, it was based on his personal experience of grace. The free gift of justification by faith for Luther was a lived experience before it became a theological treatise. Luther was struggling almost to the point of desperation because he found no peace in spite of the penance and mortifications he performed. It was when he discovered in Romans 1:17, that the just shall live by faith, that he was liberated from fear. He felt he was reborn again. Without this experience of helplessness, we can never appreciate the mercy and love of God. The consequence of experiencing our weakness challenges us to remember that apart from God and His grace, we can do nothing. This is what the gospel also reminds us. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” God is the one who always take the initiative prior to any human response. Salvation is the pure grace of God. (cf Rom 3:21-28)
What does this mean for us all? Firstly, together with the Lutherans, Catholics must rejoice that our God is a merciful God. We must underscore the primacy of grace. This God shows us His unconditional love and mercy through the death of Christ on the cross. It is faith in His forgiveness through Christ’s death on the cross that saved us from our sins. In the final analysis, we are justified through faith in Christ’s grace. So, the heart of the Christian message is our common faith in Christ that saves us. We cannot attain salvation or perfection on our own merit but through the grace of God. This indeed is the theme of our celebration.
Secondly, we must work together to recover the truth of the gospel in today’s situation. The context of Luther’s experience of sinfulness and grace is quite different for our people. Whereas Luther came to encounter God through the experience of his sinfulness, guilt and unworthiness before God, the modern man does not believe in sin, much less that he needs salvation. In a world of relativism, man has lost the consciousness of sin and this explains why he is not able to encounter God any more. It is ironical that when the Church declared that Mary was conceived without Original Sin in 1854, many disagreed. But today, many are saying that they are conceived without sin! But this is not what St John said. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 Jn 1:8-10)
If that were the case, how could we preach this doctrine of justification by grace alone when they do not experience our sinfulness the way Martin Luther did? Without a real consciousness of sin, justification is an empty word. Unless, we feel the need to be saved, the proclamation of Christ as our savior is meaningless and will be met with indifference. As Lutherans and Catholics, we must work together to recover the loss of the sense of sin, especially among our faithful. Without which, there is no good news to proclaim. There is a numbness to sin because of secularization.
Thirdly, because of secularism and humanism, the modern man does not believe in grace nor in God. He does not experience helplessness as Martin Luther did. His good works are no longer done to earn perfection before God. Instead of relying on God, he relies on modern technology, his reason and his knowledge to solve all his problems. He has no faith in God except in himself! This is the modern idolatry, where God is not needed because man can solve all their problems. Man has become too proud of himself, believing in no one except himself. In instances like these, speaking too much about sin and condemning them puts people off. People are deaf to the bad news. They react with hostility to negative judgement of their way of life. Hence, we can attract them better through the proclamation of the Good News!
This is where we need to focus on the grace of the fullness of life offered to us in Christ. In the final analysis, the greatest thing that Jesus came to give us through His death was more than just saving us from sin but giving us the Holy Spirit; a new life. Only through the gift of the Holy Spirit do we share in Christ’s sonship, thereby enabling us to live the life of the Spirit. Without denying the reality of sin or the emptiness of the world, we should give emphasis on the grace of new life in Christ, a life that is fulfilling and complete. As Jesus said, “I come to give you life, life abundantly.” (Jn 10:10) We should also demonstrate this good life that Christians live, seen in our joy even when we suffer unjustly. Otherwise, we might appear to be preaching the bad news rather than offering the Good News of salvation to all.
Finally, Martin Luther’s doctrine is founded on a personal religious experience of sinfulness and God’s mercy; helplessness and grace. If this doctrine is not to be an empty doctrine, then before this doctrine can effect change in the lives of our people, we must seek to mediate to our people a similar experience of Martin Luther’s encounter with God’s mercy. How can we do this unless we proclaim the gospel of repentance, acknowledgment of our sinfulness and the forgiveness of sins? Only in prayer and contemplation of God’s mercy in Christ, can someone come to understand the profundity of God’s mercy and transforming grace in his life.
So let us together proclaim the joy of the gospel. As Christians, let us proclaim this joy in us by appreciating each other’s tradition. Instead of just talking about unity, let us live that unity in our lives. We must continue the path of fraternal communion, sharing in the one faith, one baptism and one Lord, walking with courage and determination towards an ever fuller unity. This journey of course requires us to listen to the common Spirit given to us at baptism and our Lord’s call to unity. We must root all initiatives in Christ, through dialogue, collaboration and in prayer. In response to the gospel, we need to prune ourselves with the Word of God spoken to us by our Lord so that the obstacles towards unity can be removed. Abiding in Him and with Jesus in us, we will one day be reunited in Him, our Lord and savior. Amen.
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved