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Justification by Faith Alone

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version  (See also Justified?  What's That?)

Lent II - 03/20/11    Ez. 18:1-4, 25-32;    Ps. 119:73-88;    I Thess: 4:1-8;    Mt. 15:21-28

We have two issues to sort out: 1. What does 'justification' mean? and, 2. why justification by faith alone? What is this "alone" business? 'Alone' usually means 'not by works'. Faith is then taken to be in some kind of contradiction to works.

We have previously talked of the meaning of 'justification'. That is, 'justification' means having a good reason for something. We justify our actions by giving an acceptable reason for doing them. I might reply to a question: "Why are you here at St. Luke's this morning?" with "Because I do not get paid if I do not show up;" or with, "...because I worship and lead others in worship here;" or with, "...because I have good friends here." Most people would understand any of these as being good reasons for my showing up at St. Luke's on Sunday mornings. These reasons would justify my behavior in their minds.

We have that same justification relationship with God, only more so. God keeps track of our behavior and holds us accountable for how we behave. The summary of His standards for our behavior is contained in the Two Great Commandments -- to love God and to love our neighbor.
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The word 'justification' is right at the heart of the Christian message, so it is imperative that we come to a consistent and helpful understanding of what that means so that we can intelligently present that faith, first of all to ourselves, to one another as Christians, and then to those outside the faith.

Generally, we mean something like, 'In a right relation with God regarding sin and righteousness.'

We must show to the non-Christian that what we believe is not contradictory, and that it applies to all human being, all persons, just because they are persons.

In the religious arena, justification has to do with sin. We are charged with sin, which means that we did something for which we have no justification. I.e., we cannot give to God any good reason for having done that act.
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God gave us a standard for doing things, a standard by which actions are measured as right or wrong. The Summary of the Law stands for the whole of the law. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Love is a behavior, or a quality of behavior. Loving God means doing according to His will, dedicating the freedom of our will to His service. Much of that is done through loving our neighbor. Loving our neighbors means doing good, life and relationship enhancing things, for them.

When we do actions that do not conform to those two commandments, we are in sin, we are doing things which are not right by the standards which God, our Creator, has set for us.

God being "our Creator" is essential to understanding all this. It is His being our Creator out of nothing which enables Him to define our reason for existence. Only the Creator of something can define the reason for the existence of that thing -- for the simple and logical reason that He, and only He, gave us that existence. His purpose in creating us is the sum total of our reason for existence.

Sin, then, means violating our reason for existence. I am logically incapable of determining my own reason for existence. I can determine the reason only for my own actions and attitudes -- because I am the actor who, by my own freewill, is doing them. No one else can determine my reasons for doing what I do. That makes me also solely, or at least primarily, responsible for my behavior.

I cannot determine the reason for my existence because my existence is not my act. My existence is an act of God. That is what it means for God to be my Creator.

But, if I am not my own creator, and if I therefore cannot give the reason for my own existence, then it follows that I cannot justify my being. I cannot justify, give the reason for, my "self". My self is a creature of God. So if you want to find out why I exist, do not ask me, ask God. I might know why I exist, but I too can find out only by asking God. I cannot make it up on my own. In other words, only God can justify my being because my existence is God's behavior, not mine. My existence is not something I do, it is something I receive, a gift of grace.

This distinction between who we are and what we do is essential to understanding the meaning of salvation and a right relation with God. If we misunderstand this truth, we will almost for sure construct a faulty notion of salvation and how we receive salvation.
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What has this to do with "by faith alone", that is, not by works?

Salvation by "works" means that by doing certain good works, we can oblige God to let us into heaven. Our good works are then like a ticket which pays our way through the Pearly Gates. St. Peter accepts the ticket and lets us in.

There was a discussion on faith, salvation, and freewill between St. Augustine and an English monk named Pelagius. The debate focused on the dangers of thinking that we could earn our way into heaven by good works. It seemed to imply that we did not need Jesus or the cross to gain us entry into heaven because we could obey the law by our own freewill, and thus have earned our way on our own. No need for Jesus.

But, that is a fool's errand because it is impossible to obligate God. There is, as Job pointed out, no court above God by which we can call God to account. There is no law over God by which we can accuse Him. God is never obligated to anybody, for any thing, for any reason. So our freewill, no matter how well we behave, never does anything to obligate God. It might please God, but that does not obligate Him.

Furthermore, much of the discussion revolved around a confusion on what was being justified. There was a confusion between our being and our doing which is why I keep harping on this point. I can indeed justify my doings if I can give a good reason for them. But I cannot justify my being. That is logically impossible. Only God can justify my being, for the reason we just discussed. He is the giver of my being, and thus can give me a reason for my being.

And it is my being, my personhood, which is being saved, not my doings, my behavior. God alone can give a good reason, or any reason at all, for my existence. And He has already done that at creation. He said in Genesis, chapter 1, on the 6th day of creation, when we humans came into our being, that that was "very good". He liked the idea of our existence. Then we learn that our existence is given to us in order for us to bear the Image of God on earth. God shares His very nature with us. There could be no higher calling for a creature than that. Bearing the Image of God is why we are here. And that means channeling our behavior in a loving way.

God wants our good works to be our gift to Him and our neighbor, an act of love. Love is a free gift, not price for admission.
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The problem comes when, in the Fall, we become separated from God, and lose our awareness of Him as the foundation of our being. We get the impression that we exist on our own, so we no longer sense any justification for our being coming from God. And then we begin to think that we ourselves have to justify our being. We have to come up with reasons to show that our existence is a good idea. And how do we do that? We do it by trying to impress other people, including God -- with our behavior. That is the meaning of "salvation by works". We try to be ourselves by what we can do, rather than by what God does for us. Again, a logical impossibility, but we try our best anyhow. And when that fails, we retreat into ourselves, or we go on the attack and use power, manipulation, and coercion to be a "somebody". The world's rat race.

We set about doing good works to show that we have a right to be here. We are no longer just giving good reasons for our behavior (as we should), we are using our behavior to give good reasons for our being (which only God can do). It is a logical fallacy, but we try to do it anyhow because we are so desperate for the justification which we lost when we separated ourselves from the Hand and Voice of God. We think we can establish our own ground of being and give our own reason for existence. But we cannot. It is all nonsense, but we do it anyhow.

We see God as made now in our own image (as the pagan world does). Even we Christians, if we have not received the gift of the Holy Spirit of God, will tend to want to earn our way into life, prove our worth, show the world and God how good we are. Life becomes that rat race to the top -- because the top of the pyramid of power, fame, fortune is the pinnacle of worldly worth -- the place of being the real "somebody".
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The collect for today begins, "Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves...." That is true because there are things which only the power and authority of God can do. The world cannot give us either stability of being or moral stability. In the world, we are just stuck with a bad situation. We cannot save ourselves, so we are left with only the world's way of making a poor best of our bad situation.

In 1st Thessalonians, Paul says that the will of God is our sanctification, which means the dedication of our whole selves to His purposes for our existence. The good will and the invitation into the Kingdom are already given and in front of us. We do not have to earn them.

But people typically do not see it that way. Even many Christians do not see the Kingdom as a gift of grace, but as something we must earn. That is the only way many Christians know of putting good works together with the Kingdom -- despite 20 centuries of teaching about grace.

But the Kingdom is more than offered. We are commanded to get there with all possible haste. You do not have to prove your self to God. He already knows what good you are capable of. He created you and said your existence was very good.

When Jesus made love the substance of the two Great Commandments, He was in effect ordering us into the Kingdom. That makes no sense if we see heaven as a walled city into which we must make our way. But if heaven is a relationship of gracefulness between God and ourselves, then it makes perfect sense. You do not buy your way into a relationship, you build your way in with the other person or persons. Love relationships are built, not earned. We are commanded to build that relationship with all the energy, skill, and devotion we can muster. God is not keeping us out. We are keeping ourselves out by our ignorance, misunderstanding, and rebellion.

When Paul tells the Thessalonians to abstain from sexual sin, he is not saying that obedience will earn their way in. He is saying that obedience will itself purify them as they build with God that kind of relationship. They will be building the Kingdom by their obedience. There is no earning to it.

That is why every book in the Bible has passages telling us to do things for God, to work for God. That is not "salvation by works" in the forbidden and foolish sense. Commandments are salvation by works only if we take our obedience to obligate God. They do no such thing. Of course we are supposed to work -- because our works prepare our hearts and minds to be the kind of persons who can perceive and live in His presence, who can rejoice in His presence rather than be frightened of it.

Grace and works are then not at all opposed to each other. They work in tandem. The very opportunity to do those works is an act of grace from God. We are freely given the opportunity to put our working ability to His service which then turns us into His kind of persons.

So works are not excluded from salvation. We are to work with all that we have, not to earn heaven, but to build it with God, build that relationship of truth and grace.
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That means that the big debate about protecting the work of Christ from the supposed dangers of our freewill, which has run for nearly two millennia, was a misunderstanding. Our freewill does not offer any threat to the sovereignty of God nor to the work of Christ on the cross. God will be fully sovereign no matter what we do with our wills.

It is the misuse of our freewill, rebellion, which causes the problem. But even rebellion does not in any way threaten God. It only threatens us because we become the kinds of persons who cannot tolerate being in the presence of God, we cannot tolerate living in the light, we consign ourselves to darkness, loneliness, and eventually death. Obedient use of our freewill is precisely what God is aiming at. That is our reason for existence, that is our sanctification.
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So, Jesus did not die on the cross to save my doings, my behavior. He died on the cross because of my wrong doings, my rebellious and ignorant behavior. It is my behavior which puts Him on the cross. Jesus died to save my being, not my doings. He died to change my doings, not save them.

Once we understand the distinction between our being and our doing, salvation and justification become quite clear and common sense.

These are truths which apply to every living being. We want a reason, a meaning to our lives, a reason and meaning rooted in reality. We want significance.

But it is impossible to justify, give significance to, our own being. God sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. We cannot give ourselves the significance we crave. The best we can do without God is to persuade other humans that we are important. But that respect of others is threatened with every wind. And they die, leaving an empty place in our lives.

These are issues we should be talking about with our children, our family, our friends. There is a clear and logical story to salvation and justification. They are not hidden and mysterious. Even children can catch on. Children know what it means to have a reason. They are constantly asking "why?" We can tell them.

I challenge you this week -- take a copy of a sermon home for a friend, a relative. Have a discussion -- challenge them to either accept, or to improve on, God's best of all possible worlds, a world with eternal meaning and purpose. A God who wants us in heaven with Him, who is not trying to keep us out with rules and regulations, but is trying to get us in by truth and grace, by repentance and forgiveness.

God has given us words to speak -- if we will just open our mouths and take a chance. It almost does not matter what you say. Just say something. God has said that He will guide your conversation. And then come back and tell us what happened. The world is outside those doors waiting for someone who knows the living God. Do you? Is the God you know alive and well, or is He rather sickly, pale, and tongue-tied? If so, ask God for His Holy Spirit to fill your body, soul, and spirit.
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We have talked so far this Lent about being "Born Again" and about "Justification by Faith Alone". Next week -- "Why Jesus had to Die".

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 03/20/2011    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012