"Justification by faith alone? "4 of 11 sermons in a series on the Reformation (Romans 1:13-17)

Mark Longhurst, October 8, 2017
Part of the Pentecost series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page

Justification by faith alone?
Sermon, Rev. Mark Longhurst
October 8, 2017
Scripture - Romans 1:13-17

Luther staked everything on faith, faith alone. I’ve told the story, and I hope you know it by now, of his infamous 95 theses, that may or may not have been nailed to the Wittenburg University door. These theses protested the sale of indulgences, or get-out-of-purgatory free grants. For Luther, purgatory wasn’t the problem, though, it was the Catholic, penance-laden assumption that one could do something to effect one’s eternal status that set him off. And the insight that he had, this strange phrase called “justification by faith alone,” deepened each year. And each year, as the Reformation movement grew in influence and numbers, the implications of Luther’s insight cracked open a chasm right through Europe itself.

Justification by faith, for Luther, ensured God’s total acceptance of him and all humanity, through faith in Christ. And here’s the argument in a nutshell, which you can trace through Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Scripture passage today serves as Paul, and Luther’s thesis statement, if you will. Faith is the doorway into grace, as opposed to works. There is nothing we can do can merit God’s acceptance of us. Using forensic terminology, God declares us “just” or “righteous” through our faith in Christ.

But Luther, following Augustine, following Paul, goes further: the argument goes that our natural state is to be separated from God because of sin. We require an intervention, or salvation, and Christ on the cross is that intervention. The sacrifice, or, to put it bluntly, the death penalty, that Christ pays, is in our place. According to Luther’s logic, we miserable humans deserved death, and when we trust in Christ, God sees Christ, and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, instead of us, and we are accepted, quite literally saved. God imputes, or gives us, the righteousness or justice of Christ.

You have to admire his courage, because this insight compelled Luther to take on the Pope and the Emperor themselves. He really was an all or nothing man. “Here I stand, I can do no other.” He didn’t actually say that memorable sentence, but he just as well might have, because he stood before the Emperor Charles V in 1520 at the Diet of Worms and refused to recant his beliefs. The Diet of Worms, of course, is not an example of extreme eating, it was an assembly in which representatives from the entire Holy Roman Empire gathered in the German city of Worms to determine the fate of the notorious Martin Luther. Luther faced two choices: recant his writings or be branded a heretic. And, perhaps of all moments, this signified the definitive break with the Catholic Church and the emerging Lutheran movement: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God,” he said.” “I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me.”

He staked his life and eternal hope by standing on justification by faith alone, but he really didn’t stand alone. He wouldn’t have dared. The portrait of Luther we still carry is that of the lone, tortured, theological hero, battling all things Catholic. But Luther is the product of a movement that swept him up into legendary status; an exploding printing press that published his vernacular German and Latin pamphlets; an endowed university that became known for a new and provocative theology; a politically influential network of German supporters or “noblemen,” and, most importantly, the powerful backing of Elector Frederick the Wise, who ruled over the German region of Saxony. The Roman Empire had an electoral college, after all, and although it was always pretty clear that a Habsburg would end up on the throne, one never knew what the Electors would do. It’s Frederick, after all, that secured safe passage for Luther from the Diet of Worms, holed him up afterwards in a castle at Wartzburg, sparing him a martyr’s fate, the fate of, say, Jan Hus, burned at the stake a century earlier.

Luther could claim to stand on faith alone, because in addition to standing amidst political heft and a popular movement, he also stood on theology, and above all, he stood on the Bible. That’s why Sola Scripture, Scripture alone, goes hand in hand with justification by faith alone, or Sola Fide.

For progressive Christians, it is immediately apparent where the problems are. For straters, there’s the rather horrific assumption that God wants to kill us; then there’s humanity’s natural state of original sin, thank you Augustine, which places us in a position of being separated from God. Then there’s the view of Christ’s sacrificial death in our place, which, I would add, does have biblical warrant, and can be understood in a nonviolent way, but if taken as the whole gospel has the unfortunate effect of almost totally displacing Jesus’ actual life, teachings, and embodiment of the kingdom of God.

But here’s the liberating part, the well-worth salvaging part: God accepts us! We don’t have to do anything, we can’t do anything to twist God’s arm into loving us more. In Luther’s day, the Church supported an extremely complex system of merit, penance, and salvation, and, as with indulgences, much of it revolved around money. If you paid good money before you died to, say a monastery, those holy monks could say private masses on your behalf for years, which would shorten your stay in Purgatory. If you prayed to the saints and offered penance, you could shorten your exposure to hell’s fire. Luther’s simple but devastating insight is that none of it matters. The gift is already given. God’s grace is already available, all that is needed is faith. Or as Paul puts it, in what becomes for Luther a sort of thesis statement: “The righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”

I’ll be honest. I struggle with this clunky doctrine, this theological rallying cry called justification by faith. There was a time in my life when this seemed to be the best news on earth, and indeed, Luther thought it was. But here’s why I struggle with it now, and maybe you, too: where’s the love? I can’t believe in a God that only loves us because his Son died. I can’t believe that blood is that redemptive. And, as evil as we can be, especially when, thanks to the NRA, guns are so readily available to troubled Americans, I can’t believe that humanity is all evil and originally full of sin. To borrow a book title, there’s grace and grit and grime all mixed up together. Where is the love? Much of what Luther is doing is kicking love off the pedestal of medieval spirituality and replacing faith as the primary goal of Christian life. And maybe it makes me more Catholic, but I’d pick love over faith any day. Then again, even Paul said, these three things abid: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.

In our time of new reformation, in which new theologies and institutional alignments and imperial powers are all shifting, I’m not sure we need “all or nothing” thinkers anymore. We are realizing that “all or nothing” often leads to division, and war, and ever more typically Protestant breakaways to form the “true church,” not to mention self-righteousness and scapegoating enemies and racism.

Rather than “all or nothing,” rather than justification by faith alone, I believe we need integral people who include divergent perspectives in their pursuit to see the whole. One mark of spiritual development, says the pioneering theorist Ken Wilber, is that we transcend and include our previous developmental stages. You know, for example, that you’re beyond a tribal level of religion when you can see beauty and truths in all denominations, all religions, and when yours is not the only one that has the truth.

The Reformers were Catholicism’s adolescent, rebellious sons, who needed to differentiate from their Holy Mother. We can understand Paul’s passion for faith in Christ, which led to a painful in Judaism, and we can understand the Reformers passion, which gave us our denomination today. We can understand, appreciate, and even love all of this, but these were not integral people, people who saw the whole. (I actually think Paul was, but that’s another sermon). You know, for example, that you have “transcended and included” your previous developmental stages when you don’t have to call the Pope the Antichrist or the Whore of Babylon, as Luther did, many times. We liberals know, for example, that we have transcended and included previous stages of development when we don’t have to “hate” conservatives anymore.

Ours is a magnificent moment, a time of generous orthodoxy (to use a phrase by Brian Mclaren): We can bask in grace’s gift, via Luther and the Reformers. We can reconceive the meaning of Jesus’s death beyond blood sacrifice. We can follow a path of union with divine love with the Catholic mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. We can develop a more positive theological anthropology, or view of human nature, with the Eastern Orthodox. And we can take Jesus life and teachings seriously with the Anabaptists.

And yet, even in these postmodern times, it’s worth holding onto Luther’s claim to fame: we are accepted by God, there’s nothing we can do to merit grace! No amount of activism or impeccable church attendance or moral behavior or perfect prayer will earn grace, because grace is a gift, and this gift is already given.

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