June 18, 2017

Since We Are Justified by Faith

Passage: Genesis 18:1-15, Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19, Romans 5:1-8, Matthew 9:35 – 10:8

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ

On April 13, 2017 Bill C-45 was introduced into the House of Commons in Canada for first reading. It is the Liberal government bill respecting cannabis which proposes to provide legal access to marijuana and to control and regulate its production, distribution and sale.

On the eve of the presentation of this legislation Peter Stockland, publisher of Convivium—a Canadian website promoting faith in common life—posted an article titled Spiritual Grass Fire. His article reflected on the spiritual significance that undergirds the debate that would unfold in Parliament. And as I thought about his article I reflected that the spiritual significance is not something likely to be debated in the House of Commons with respect to the legislation. Taxation, health impact, safety for young people, and reduction of the burden on the criminal justice system are all likely topics for debate. But the spiritual significance of what this legislation implies with respect to our humanity is not likely to be part of such debate.

Stockland wrote, “But the questions that truly need asking are these: What is the need we have as a culture for the inescapable effect of ingesting marijuana? What is the hole in our social hearts that it fills? What void of human charity are we seeking to overcome by making it legal?”

We read today from Matthew’s gospel of Jesus on his gospel preaching tour through the cities and villages of Galilee that included his curing every disease and sickness. Matthew said that when Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36) Sheep without a shepherd; no one to guide them to pasture and water source; living in danger of the vagaries of marauding predators. An apt description of people living under first century Roman occupation; also an apt description of the spiritual condition of humanity occupied by the power of sin. I note that Jesus believes what they need most is to hear the gospel. (As an aside, I also note that he did not bring nor send with his disciples any cannabis-like substance for distribution.)

In the Ancient world all roads led to Rome. Rome stood at the centre of the civilized world, as it was then known. It was the centre of wealth, education, art, and governing power. Philosophic and religious voices that competed to gain prominence could be found on many a street corner. Anything that the Roman Empire afforded could be had in Rome. Roman people were sophisticated and worldly and self-satisfied.

To the Christians in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote his most complete and systematic explanation of “the gospel of God … the gospel concerning God’s Son … Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:1-4) In the opening of his letter Paul set out his conviction in summary, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)

In this message we are reflecting on the gospel assertion that the believer is justified by faith. Justification by faith is the kernel of the gospel. For many this sounds like an in-house discussion by the rules committee of some sport. The point I invite you to consider is that Paul, in concert with Jesus, believed that what Rome needed was the gospel. In the midst of all that occupied people’s attention in busy Roman life the gospel needed to be heard—the gospel that declared what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. The gospel asserts that we humans have a more profound need than any legislation can solve; there is a void that no amount of liberalizing anything and everything can fill.

1. When we use the word “justification” in conversation we are usually thinking about explaining our behaviour. Scripture does not have this meaning in mind when it speaks of justification. When the apostle Paul insists that God justifies the ungodly he doesn’t mean that God provides an explanation, be it ever so sound, for my ungodliness; neither does he mean that God offers or entertains a shabby rationalisation for my ungodliness. When he says that God justifies the ungodly he means that God puts in the right with himself men and women who are now in the wrong with him.

The one Greek word, dikaiosune, is commonly translated both “justification” and “righteousness.” If we want to avoid being misled by modern English meanings we should always understand “justification” or “justify” in terms of “righteous” or “righteousness.” To say that we are justified, then, is to say that we are put in the right with God, made right with God. Obviously justification is the kernel of the gospel. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ sets people in the right with God.

Continuing with this understanding that in the New Testament “justification” and “righteousness” are a translation of the same word, we also understand that God’s righteousness in not an attribute but a power. It is not a distant, forbidding characteristic of God that humans are supposed to try to emulate. Instead, the righteousness of God is God’s powerful activity of making right what is wrong in the world. When we read, in both Old and New Testaments, that God is righteous, we are to understand that God is at work in his creation doing right.

It is on this point that the gospel offends many. The idea that we need to be put in the right with God because we are in the wrong with God is not how most describe the issues that beset humanity. Read any news story—never is the problem described as rooted in human rebellion against God. We don’t see ourselves as on the outs with God or in rebellion against God. But isn’t the fact that we bristle at the very suggestion an indication of the reality that we are opposed to God? That we are opposed to God’s assertion that we are opposed to him indicates to us how mired we are in our opposition.

Furthermore, God’s wrath in scripture against ungodliness is his steady opposition to sin; God’s resistance to all that destroys the creation and creatures God loves. The wrath of God is not like ours—a flying off the handle because we suddenly have had enough. It is God’s love grown hot as he relentlessly, consistently opposes that which destroys us ever pointing us away from that which is destructive.

The scriptures are about God; about God’s mighty acts and what he has done. Justification, setting us in the right with himself is something God does for us. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” It costs God everything yet free to any who would believe.

2. “Justification,” declares the Apostle Paul, is “by faith.” Faith, in scripture, is relational. Faith is that relationship we have with God through our saviour Jesus Christ enable by the Holy Spirit in our lives. Faith has in view that incursion God has made into our lives so that we might believe. Faith isn’t what we muster in order to pry out of Jesus’ hands one of the “admit-one-past-the-pearly-gates” tickets as if justification were something independent of him.

Jesus Christ gives us salvation by giving us himself. This is what is at the root of the observation that faith is relational. In that opening statement in Paul’s Roman letter the Apostle wrote that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.” The righteousness of God—God’s activity to set us and all things right—is through faith for faith. It comes by our Lord’s incursion into our lives making himself known for faith, for this ongoing relationship of faith with him. Through faith for faith. Yes, we respond in faith.

Sometimes we have equated faith with holding a set of beliefs, perhaps like when we confess our faith with the Apostles ’ Creed. To be sure, faith implies belief. It is this particular Jesus we believe in not some other Jesus. But these faith confessions or statement are pointers to the one who has made incursion into our lives. It is God we cling to not the statements. Just as the Bible points us to Christ so too these statements of belief consistent with that Apostolic witness in the scripture.

When your friend sends you an electronic message to meet at a particular coffee shop you go to the coffee shop not because you trust the electronic message but because you know your friend. When we together confess the Creed as say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,” our confidence isn’t because the sentence sounds cool and important; our confidence is in the One who has made himself known to us. Our confidence is in the one to whom this sentence points; the one around whom our life in oriented through faith.

We are set right with God through our faith in the Righteous One whom he has given us, Christ Jesus our Lord. He is that Son who is ever rightly related to the Father. To entrust ourselves to him and cast ourselves upon him; to abandon ourselves to him and remain bound to him – all of this is what is meant by “faith” – is to find that when the Father looks upon the Son he sees us included in the Son, so closely are we identified with the Son. As we cling to him in faith his righteousness clothes us; his standing with the Father is reckoned to be our standing. Intimacy with the Righteous One renders us “in the right” too.

I return to the question Peter Stockland asked about our governments move to legalize marijuana. What is the hole in our social hearts that it fills? Justification by faith may sound strange in the midst of such a debate. But we can point people to the One who justifies; to the One who truly can fill the hole in our social hearts. I also want to note that because this is something God does for us it does not rest on our ability to believe. Depression and its mental health cousins can make us feel that our faith is deficient. The point of the gospel is there in no deficiency in Christ. Our confidence is in him.

3. The Apostle went on to say that because God has set us in the right with Godself through faith in Christ we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. The gospel ever orients us towards a great hope. We hope for all kinds of things in life that has us oriented towards them. We hope to own a home and orient our finances accordingly. We hope to get married and engage in relationship with that in mind. We hope for children and grandchildren. At my children’s weddings I though it an appropriate time to bring up the subject of my desire for a grandchild. We hope to defeat a disease or overcome a decline in health and take treatment toward that end. What is this gospel hope of sharing the glory of God?

What the Apostle hints at here he describes more fully later in his letter. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Justification has cosmic significance. Creation will one day be restored and us within it. Imagine that future where love will only give way to more love.

Such hope orient us for living in our world following the one who has done all this for us.

4. The Apostle also said, strangely perhaps, that we also boast in our sufferings. Do we? The person who stands convinced beyond doubt of her righted relationship with God; does even she boast in her sufferings? In one sense, no; at least not if she’s sane. When Jesus was being nailed to the wood he didn’t grin with pleasure and say to onlookers, “This is great stuff, you know, just great!” No one in his right mind rejoices at the onset of pain.

Paul went on to say “that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.” Some people read this as if Paul were an apologist for the idea that suffering allows a person to attain higher levels of spiritual development. Not unlike how we think of training for an athletic sport or activity. The harder we push our bodies the greater the thrill of achieving an ever faster time or higher climb. So some say that God sends difficulty so we can know the joy of overcoming difficulty.

I do not think that Paul is offering an explanation for suffering or a justification for it. Do you have to suffer to appreciate not suffering? I don’t have to break my arm to know that the joy of using my arms. Paul is not saying that suffering is a good idea or ought to be pursued or holds some intrinsic positive value if only we could see it. Paul is showing how God’s love and the outpouring of the Spirit sustains the believer in the suffering. Nothing that happens to us is beyond the reach of God and our Lord’s purposes to work good for us.
It is often a long time later that we become aware of what God did with us and for us and through us during a painful episode. Set right with God by seizing the Righteous One in faith, we rejoice in the midst of whatever life brings before us, for we know that God will use all of it for us and others.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ