Genesis 12:1-4a ; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
We are looking this Lent to small acts of repentance, to manageable acts by which we turn our life around so that we are following Jesus’ godly path, rather than walking aimlessly about. Now, small acts are not everything. There will be a time, starting after Easter, to talk about greater actions—deeds that we must work on together. Those greater actions require us to think together about God’s vision of justice that should animate our values as a church. That kind of thinking takes us close to the realm of politics—even if it is a loftier kind of politics than the partisanship and personalities that dominate our national political theater.
Well, focusing on small and personal actions avoids those more complicated issues, for the time being. And the small scale of personal discipleship is appropriate to Lent, with its inward turn. But as we approach the end of Lent, I think we’ll still find that even when it comes to small, personal actions that try to make us better, we still come up short. If small actions were sufficient and successful, we wouldn’t need to be a church; and we wouldn’t need God. And we wouldn’t need the very biggest of personal actions: Jesus on a cross; Jesus appearing beyond the grave.
In short, we wouldn’t need what Paul in our reading from Romans calls “justification by faith.” Now, I think we do need to talk about justification by faith, and I will argue that if we can understand Paul correctly, we have a wonderful way to help us reconcile with other people—and that is our small deed of repentance for this week (it’s on the card in your bulletin; remember to take it with you). So we need to talk about justification by faith. /But that’s kind of too bad. I almost wish we didn’t have to talk about justification by faith, even though I wrote a whole book about it. The language and reasoning of it are so difficult. And frankly, Christians just keep getting it wrong. It’s surely frustrating and troubling that this concept that we are justified by faith and not by works, supposedly so central to Christian faith, is understood in differing and contradictory ways. I’ve asked many Christians, during my years of teaching Bible, and again at Bible study last Tuesday, what justification by faith means. And I’ve heard many valiant efforts that yield sensible answers. Usually people understand justification by faith to mean something like this: God doesn’t look at our outer actions (our works); God looks at what is in our heart, our faith. It sure sounds like that is what Paul is saying: “Abraham believed [or had faith in] God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” as dikaiosune in Greek, a word that we could translate as justice or justification. That’s what most people understand when they hear, God justifies Abraham based on faith. God doesn’t care about circumcision, the ritual removal of the foreskin of the male member commanded of all Jews. God instead looks at Abraham’s heart, what he believes, and sees a faithful, believing heart; so God says, “Attaboy, Abraham. I’m going to reward you for trusting in me and believing in me.” God judges and rewards based on what we believe, not on what we do. That’s what many or most Christians think it means.
That’s the typical understanding of evangelicals, too. And passages like the lectionary gospel reading for this week from John chapter 3, which was the basis for our call to worship, encourage this understanding. Good old John 3:16, found on the T-shirt of many a rainbow-wigged golf spectator—what exactly was up with that? I haven’t watched golf for years; do people still do the rainbow wig and John 3:16 T-shirt? I guess that’s evangelism. / “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And then: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they do not believe in the name of the only Son of God.” There you have it, supposedly. When we get to the pearly gates, God will examine our faith. Those who have said, “I believe in the name of Jesus” will get in. Those who don’t believe in the name of Jesus will be sent to perdition. We will be judged and rewarded based on our faith, based on knowing a name. It sounds a little like getting into a speakeasy by knowing the secret password, doesn’t it? Now, evangelicals have a richer sense of what it means to believe in Jesus than just knowing the password, but they sure love that stuff about the “name of Jesus,” and they love, love, love John 3:16.
But I think they don’t have it right; and I think most Christians get Paul wrong. I’ll just note for now that there’s no grace in what I’ve been describing; this is not the God who “justifies the ungodly,” but a God who rewards and punishes based on merit, only now, we earn our salvation by believing in Jesus. / It’s a misunderstanding, a misreading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I think that many, perhaps most Christians have fundamentally misunderstood Paul’s teaching of justification by faith. I’m not even sure Paul understood his own teaching! (I know that sounds like hubris.) Because sometimes Paul sounds like he’s saying what many Christians misunderstand him to be saying. It makes me want to throw up my hands and give up. I can carefully lead people through the whole letter, and with rigorous interrogation, I can show that the idea that God rewards faith in the heart does not hold up. But it feels like trying to push back the tide, sometimes.
Fortunately, I’m not as alone and helplessly beleaguered as all that. The acclaimed NT scholar, Robert Jewett, writing his 1000+page commentary on Romans in the prestigious Hermeneia series, notes that most commentators approach Paul’s sentence, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” thinking that it “point[s] to some form of human behavior that produces righteousness,” like belief in the correct doctrine, or an attitude of trust, or faith; Jewett continues, “but every such explanation, constitutes a potential new form of religious boasting that Paul wishes to exclude.” “Something radically new is in view here,” he says.
Well, it’s a sad state of affairs. We have this central teaching from Paul and it is apparently very difficult to get right. Taking a cue from Jewett, I recommend we focus on the phrase, “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Paul just previously in chapter three said, “Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded.” Our salvation gives us nothing to boast about. We can’t wag our finger at the ignorant heathen and say, “You should have believed in Jesus, like I did.” If we are saved by the grace of God, thanks only to Jesus Christ, then we have nothing of our own. Before God, there’s nothing we can point to—like a born-again experience, or regular attendance at church, or being a lifer in the UCC or in this congregation, or being hard-working and an upstanding citizen—nothing that we can point to and say, “Look what I did God, or look at how good and believing my heart is. Now don’t you think I deserve a reward?” If that’s where you are coming from, then you don’t really have faith. You believe in yourself, and what you have is your own ego, your desire to make yourself stand out, to show that you are better and more deserving than others. “Look at me, look at me!” / That kind of achievement-oriented self-promotion may have its place. Like a resume, for instance. And you probably hired me based on what distinguished me from other applicants. We inevitably end up favoring people based on what distinguishes them. We don’t marry someone based on sheer grace. We don’t fall in love with someone just because we find him unlovable. We are attracted to people who are attractive and who stand out, who impress us. And we hire the so-called best person for the job. And each of us has the most precious and beautiful children in the whole world, and it’s easy to love them. All of that is natural to us. And it’s why we keep misunderstanding what Paul is saying. Our whole society is based on earning and deserving. And so we so easily believe that God must be like us; God rewards those who are worthy. But this human way of acting—Paul calls it the “flesh” or, remember from last week, the Old Adam still living in us—has no ultimate standing with God. Rewarding those who distinguish themselves, loving the beautiful and attractive—these values are virtually the very basis of our civilization; but they have no ultimate standing before God, and indeed God does the opposite.
And it’s why Jesus said, unless you are born from above, of the Spirit, you will never enter the Kingdom of God. We can enjoy wonderful romantic partnerships and friendships based on mutual admiration (at least to start). But we will never enter God’s kingdom, God’s new community founded on the grace of Jesus Christ, unless we stop saying, “Look at me, look at me, aren’t I so worthy?” There is a love that you will never attain starting from, “Aren’t I so worthy?”, let alone, “Aren’t I hot? Are you the one I’ve been looking for?” The faith Paul is talking about means never worrying about what I deserve, what I am worthy of, what reward and admiration is due me. (And wouldn’t it be nice and pleasant to stop thinking about all that?) You can’t have the highest love without that faith. You can’t have a community where people love one another without regard to worthiness unless everyone confesses that worthiness means nothing before God.
Justification by faith is shocking to think about, isn’t it? You see, we do not want to do without Paul and his vexing, confusing, disorienting teaching that we are justified by faith (or better, justified by grace in Jesus Christ). There is a power in understanding ourselves as this people of Jesus Christ. It gives us a whole new basis for and way to love, to seek reconciliation.
Now, I’ve talked about reconciliation before. This congregation has many beautiful bonds of Christian love that hold us together. And then there’s other stuff. Grudges. Old hurts and resentments. Personality conflicts. That’s all very real, very Adam. Don’t pretend it’s not there. God doesn’t want us to be sanctimonious, or sugar-coating hypocrites. It’s just because we believe that God accepts us when we don’t deserve it, that we don’t have to be ashamed to confess our faults. We should think this way: ‘We’re Christians, justified by faith by our holy God; of course we are sinners! Of course we are all messed up.’ And you know, there’s no other organization beside the church where your belonging has nothing to do with whether you are worthy. So here alone can you be honest with your faults, here alone can you without anxiety and without guilt examine your faults and come to know yourself better. Here alone can you repent, because here alone you have heard the good news.
We will be able to love others and reconcile with others because we see ourselves as beloved by God without regard for what we’ve done to be worthy—which is to say, despite all that we’ve done or thought or felt or believed that is not worthy of God. If we truly have faith, then we have no ego to bruise, and no ego with which to hold a grudge, and no ego to carry resentment. In place of ego, we have faith. In place of me, I have Jesus Christ. He is my true humanity, a humanity which I share with everyone.
And likewise we are able to love others and reconcile with them because not only do we not have no ego, but we don’t see others as the sum of their works. We don’t see others as the collection of offenses and obnoxious behavior which we reckon against them in our assiduous accounting. Letting go of works is the only way we will be able to forgive them and move on. But we don’t pretend they are perfect or flawless. Despite the emphasis in our hymn of response (“Help Us Accept Each Other”), we don’t have to just accept people the way they are. We certainly don’t have to let chronically abusive people continue to abuse us. Reconciliation does not have to mean only forgiveness and acceptance. That’s certainly not how Paul treats the Christians under his care. After assuring them of God’s love and giving thanks for them, Paul in his letters patiently rakes them over the coals for all the ways they are failing to live up to their status as heirs of God. / But there is a world of difference—the difference between remaining in your sins and enacting the peace of Christ—between holding someone’s faults against them so you can nurture your grievances and feel superior and “justified” in your antipathy, and thinking to yourself prayerfully, how can I make this person, this enemy of mine, this one from whom I am estranged, into the best person he or she can be. And you can be sure that you will never make someone into the best he or she can be, into a person of faith and love, if that person feels only your resentment, gets even a whiff of your anger, your superiority, or even your ‘condescension to be helpful.’ You will only make someone better if she feels nothing but your love and is assured that she can trust you. So forgiveness does not always have to come first, nor does reconciliation end with forgiveness. Honestly, Christians have overemphasized forgiveness. But reconciliation does begin with your love, even your love for the ungodly, the undeserving. And that requires faith: letting go of your ego, so that you are turned wholly to this other person with no strings, no agenda, no skin in the game, nothing to prove. But it also requires seeing this other from whom you are estranged as bearing the same humanity that Christ took upon himself. As you see Christ in place of yourself, so you see Christ in the place of this other—and it doesn’t matter whether that person is a Christian or not. And sure, the old Adam is still there in that one, as it is in you too. But reconciliation can never happen if we can’t envision new possibilities in our relationships. And Christ is our future—both your future and the future of the other.
Your Lenten Disciplines card for this week rehearses all of this in brief, and allows you to meditate on it in the midst of prayer. Because of what God did in Christ, this doctrine of justification by faith can change your life, and change your relationships. Take it home. Apply it. Reach out to heal that broken relationship, whatever the cause and whoever was supposedly at fault. Do this in repentance, as Christ’s disciples. Do this by faith.