Today is Reformation Day, the 482nd anniversary of the day when Martin
Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, nailed 95 theses on the church door in
Wittenberg, Germany. Luther's 95 theses took issue with certain of the
teachings and practices of his church. His action is generally credited with
starting the Protestant Reformation. It is striking that Presbyterians, who
consider themselves to belong to the Reformed tradition, hardly say much of
anything anymore about the Reformation on Reformation Day.
In a recent issue of THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY, Bruce Modahl, a member
of my Pastor Theologian group who serves Grace Lutheran Church in River
Forest, Illinois, has an article titled, "Why bother with Reformation?" Modahl
observes, "There was a time when Reformation Sunday provided the occasion
for Protestants to get together and say bad things about Catholics. Reformation
services were conclaves of smug pronouncements. We had the truth and they
did not. They felt the same way about us" [October 20, 1999, p. 995]. Not any
more, as Modahl observes. Since Vatican II, relations and attitudes between
Roman Catholics and Protestants have changed dramatically. They have
changed so much that on this very day, in Augsburg, Germany, representatives
of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican will sign a statement lifting
the mutual condemnations of the 16th century. Moreover, the document they
will sign will also include a joint statement on one of the doctrines that has long
been a bone of contention between Protestants and Catholics, the doctrine of
justification by faith. The doctrine has been of central importance to
Protestants, while for Catholics it has been viewed somewhat differently and
given much less attention.
From what little I have heard, I gather that Lutherans and Catholics have finally
come to some agreement about the meaning and significance of the doctrine of
justification. After over 4 ½ centuries of division! And over 4 ½ centuries after
subjecting each other to mutual condemnation, representatives of these two
bodies of Christians have agreed formally to acknowledge and accept the other
as belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ. This does not mean that henceforth
Roman Catholics and Lutherans or other Protestants will find themselves in
agreement about all the important doctrines and teachings of the church. It
would seem to mean, however, that whatever disagreements continue to exist
will no longer be regarded as sufficient basis for anything like the
condemnations of the past.
In the Bible condemnation and justification are often contrasted with one
another. They are in effect opposites. If one is justified, one cannot be
condemned. If one is condemned, one can hardly be justified. Thus, it seems to
me that in withdrawing their mutual condemnations of one another, Catholics
and Lutherans are not only agreeing upon a statement about the doctrine of
justification, they are putting their acceptance of that justification into practice.
Each is acknowledging the other to be justified by faith.
But what does it mean to be "justified by faith." We owe the phrase and much
of our understanding to the Apostle Paul. But what Paul says is not always
easy to follow, so let me first try another tack. Let me ask, how do people
usually find justification? On what basis do people usually consider themselves
to be justified? Isn't it because they think they are right? Or because they think
they have the right? Or, as Modahl says about Protestants and Catholics,
because they think they have the truth? Or maybe because they think they have
the winning rational argument, or the superior moral virtue? Of course,
sometimes people justify themselves on the basis of racial identity, or national
identity, or even sexual identity. Sometimes people justify themselves on the
basis of sheer power--they do whatever they do just because they want to and
they are able to do it and get away with it. I suppose it depends on what kind
of ethical or moral value system you have, whether you think might makes
right, or truth gives right, or merit or virtue or argument or rule or law or
birthright something else entitles you to act in a way that you find justified.
Our Old Testament text from Amos is especially fascinating in this connection.
Religious people often feel justified by virtue of their religious activities. They
go to church on Sunday, they participate in the worship, they come to meetings,
they sing songs of praise, they celebrate the religious holy days, they give the
offerings that are expected of them. Every once in a while I run into somebody
who tells me that he does not feel like a very good Christian because he has not
done all of these things, and I realize that this is what many people equate with
Way back in his day, the prophet Amos spoke to a society, many of whose
leaders and members apparently were suitably religious. Not only did they do
all the religious things, however, they assumed that when push came to shove
and the chips were down, God would come through for them. Specifically,
they assumed that they would be delivered from any enemies or tribulations in
the day of the LORD.
Amos saw the situation very differently, however. He announced the severest
judgment of God upon the people of Israel. Do they suppose that the day of
the LORD will be the day of their victory and vindication? "Alas for you who
desire the day of the LORD!" he exclaims. "Why do you want the day of the
LORD? It is darkness and not light, as if someone fled from a lion, and was
met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and
was bitten by a snake" [5:18-19]. The picture he paints is not pretty. The
people must not assume that their religiosity will save them. To the contrary,
says Amos for God, "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in
your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and
grain offerings I will not accept them . . . Take away from me the noise of your
songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps" [21-22, 23].
Amos sees that the religious practice of the people is worse than nothing apart
from the way in which they order their society and treat one another. Religious
observance without social reform will get them nowhere. So, he declares, "let
justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream"
Amos is hardly the only Old Testament figure to provide such a prophetic
critique of religion. We need only turn to Isaiah, or Jeremiah, Hosea or Joel,
Jonah or Micah, for similar reminders that God takes no delight in the forms of
religiosity without the substance of faithfulness. Jesus, likewise, came in
conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees--the religious
authorities of his day. And in this morning's New Testament text Paul is
informing the Christians at Rome that their calling as God's beloved in Jesus
Christ provides them no immunity from the judgment and condemnation they
may be inclined to pass on those whom he describes, in the first chapter, as
"filled with every kind of wickedness" [1:29]. Being religious, in other words,
does not justify us in the sight of God.
"Therefore," says Paul, "you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge
others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you,
the judge, are doing the very same things" [2:1]. Now it might sound as if Paul
is saying here that we are to be morally indifferent; we are not to make any
moral judgments at all. Or it might sound as if he is saying that all morality is
relative, so we really cannot say that anything is good or bad, right or wrong.
But that hardly fits with anything else that he says. Rather, I think Paul is
saying that we are not to be in the business of condemning others for their
actions, however wrong they may be. We are not to set ourselves above others.
We are not to regard ourselves as morally superior even to those who actions
we find to be filled with wickedness. For "all have sinned and fall short of the
glory of God" [3:23].
There are plenty of complicated moral and ethical and theological issues that
arise from this way of looking at things. We should not assume that we have
settled all the questions of human behavior and action by such a sweeping
statement. There is one really crucial thing, and perhaps only one thing, that
Paul is trying to say here. That is, we cannot justify ourselves before God. I
take that to mean that we cannot justify ourselves by any of the ways we are
wont to do. We cannot justify ourselves on the basis of any superior virtue, or
superior knowledge, or superior reasoning powers. We cannot justify ourselves
on the basis of moral merit, or religious practice, or group identity, or any form
of power. We cannot justify ourselves on grounds that we are right, or that we
have the truth or the right. We simply cannot justify ourselves before God. We
must all depend upon God's grace.
To me, there is an image that captures what Amos and all the great Old
Testament prophets have done, what Jesus and Paul have done, and what
Martin Luther was also doing when he developed the doctrine of justification by
faith. They have knocked out all the props by which we habitually try to justify
ourselves in order to shore up our own existence. Our efforts to justify
ourselves are usually at the expense of others, and invariably involve some claim
to special status in the sight of God. There is nothing we can do, according to
Paul, to merit or to gain such status for ourselves. We have no grounds for
boasting, no grounds for condemning, no grounds for claiming a superior
righteousness, based upon our own actions and powers.
In Paul's words, "we hold that a person is justified by faith" [Romans 3:28].
Such faith is not a human work. It is not a human accomplishment. It is a gift.
It is by the grace of God. Such faith is not mere belief, however. It is more
fundamentally a trust in God. But it is not just trust in God. It is trust in a
gracious God, a God whose love has been made manifest to us in Jesus Christ.
What Paul is saying, in the simplest but most important terms, is that the faith
we need in order to be set right in our relationship with God is itself a grace of
God, given in love.
Martin Luther wrote in his Preface to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, "Faith
is a living, well-founded confidence in the grace of God" [cited in Gerald
Tomlinson, TREASURY OF RELIGIOUS QUOTATIONS, 81]. I like that
way of putting it. When we trust God, when we have confidence in the grace
of God, we hardly need to justify ourselves. It ceases to be an issue with God
whether we possess the truer or better or stronger or more superior way. If we
know that we do not need to justify ourselves, then we also know that we do
not need to condemn others, and we do not need to prove ourselves. If we do
not need to prove ourselves, then we can be more open to the other who is
different, the other who disagrees, the other who seems to threaten, the other
who disgusts, the other who would frustrate our efforts at self-justification.
The other who no longer threatens our own self-justification, because we no
longer need to justify ourselves, becomes an other whom we need no longer to
see as an enemy, no longer as someone we need to change or conquer or
We are justified by faith. Justification means being set right with God, but it also involves a re-ordering of our relationships with one another. Justification replaces condemnation with reconciliation. We are justified by faith, or we are not justified at all. Faith is a gift, not something we merit or accomplish. "Faith is a living, well-founded confidence in the grace of God." It is not a confidence in ourselves. It is not a confidence in God' s condemnation of our enemies. It is a confidence that God is good, and gracious, and to be trusted with all that we have and are. AMEN.