Paul’s Life-Changing Teachings
Justification by Faith
Thursday, April 23, 2015
“To show how infinitely rich God is in grace, you are all saved by a total gift and not by anything you have done, so that nobody can ever claim the credit. You are God’s work of art—to live the good life as God meant us to live it from the beginning!” (Ephesians 2:8-10). This is my summary translation of perhaps my favorite passage from the Pauline letters.
Paul deeply accepted that he was saved “while yet a sinner,” as we all must eventually do (Romans 5:8). He knew he was saved by God’s free choice, mercy, and election. God’s infinite love has nothing to do with good works or deservedness. Paul was on his way to do more cruel and murderous things when Christ stopped him on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9 and 22). God wanted “to reveal his Son in me” as Paul brilliantly puts it (Galatians 1:16). The formerly “outer” God has become an inner identity for Paul, and even his deepest self-identity. It will be the same for you if you stay on the journey.
This necessary breakthrough that Paul received and allowed moved him beyond his early reliance upon obedience to laws and requirements (mere ego achievements) for his self-validation. We all usually begin with law, but as Martin Luther saw in Paul’s movement toward “justification by faith alone,” we must move there too. Luther himself grew into grace after trying so hard to be a good and perfect monk (as I once did too). N. T. Wright perceptively points out that what Paul intended was to distinguish Judaism from his new “Christian” experience, which was then later used to distinguish “Works Righteousness Christians” (who were supposedly Catholics) from “Grace Christians” (who were supposedly Lutherans and, later, Evangelicals). It was all too tidy and totally dualistic.
All people and religions at the early stages try to justify themselves by some form of performance and achievement—Lutherans, Catholics, and everyone in between. Sometimes that “achievement” is my heroic act of faith itself. All religion, if it matures, will move the soul from the performance principle (any form of meritocracy) to the pure realm of grace. But this always takes many years of growing, testing, and ever more practical trusting in God, and many deep surrenders to grace. One emotional experience of “giving your life to Jesus” is a good but very small start-up exercise. You have no idea what that means or what it will ask of you yet, just as a young couple has no idea what their sincerely stated marriage vows will eventually require of them. God mercifully doles out our life in doses. Grace is too much for a moment.
Gateway to Silence:
I am the temple of God.
Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, discs 3 and 8 (CD)