Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday in Lent, 19th March 2017
Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

What I want to talk about is a very famous passage, which we have had as our first lesson, from the fifth chapter of the letter of St Paul to the Romans.

‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:

By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, …’

These are words which have inspired some of the greatest Christians in history, and have shaped our own understanding of the gospel. If you read article XI in the 39 Articles on page 616 of your Prayer Book, you will see that it is called, ‘Of the Justification of Man’. It says, 

‘We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith and not for our own works or deservings: wherefore, that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine.’

The quotation, that we are justified by faith ‘alone’ is a direct quotation from Martin Luther’s translation of Romans chapter 3 verse 28, where Luther introduced the word ‘alone’ , through faith alone, which is not in the Greek original and it is not in the King James Bible either. So I think we can infer that Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the 39 Articles, was familiar with the German translation of the Bible by Martin Luther.

So this passage brings us from just after the time of Christ, St Paul’s time, maybe 50 A.D., to Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer in the early 1500s, when this idea of justification by faith was one of the key ideas in the Reformation, and then again it cropped up in the Evangelical revival in the early 1700s, when John Wesley was going to a Bible study meeting in Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, ‘When a person read Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, which teaches what justifying faith is.’ Wesley said, ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved to me from the law of sin and death’. Wesley subsequently described the experience as being tantamount to being born again. He referred to his spiritual rebirth: but it could also be described as a conversion experience. 

Indeed, John Wesley said, after he had felt his ‘heart strangely warmed’, that he had ‘not really been a Christian’ before then. That was a little bit surprising, given that he was already an ordained minister in the Church of England. With his brother Charles he even ran the so-called Holy Club in Oxford. So much for ‘not really being a Christian’ – but it does underline what a big experience Wesley felt he had had. And of course he and his brother went on to found the ‘people called Methodists’, the Methodist Church.

So much for history. What do these words really mean? What is ‘justification’? What is ‘faith’? What is the ‘grace’ referred to? What was all the fuss about in the Reformation? I expect that these are words which would not readily come to mind these days. On the other hand, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and certainly St Paul, had a different perspective. They were worried, seriously worried, about heaven and hell. Whether they would go up or go down. They were worried about God as the judge eternal. 

The word which is translated as ‘justification’ or sometimes, ‘righteousness’, has a flavour of the courtroom about it. Choosing the right, judging, deciding on the right course of action. So righteousness, being right, came also to mean being right, in a right relationship, with God. The idea was that, through man’s exercise of free will, after the fall, after Adam, mankind was imperfect, was not how God had created them to be. Would God condemn them to eternal damnation? 

Martin Luther found that the whole thing weighed down on him and caused him to become extremely depressed. He wrote that he hated that word, ‘righteousness of God’. ‘I felt I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience … I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.’

The Catholic church at the time preached that you could justify yourself at the Pearly Gates by having done lots of good works, and also by having obtained ‘indulgences’, which were permissions which the Church granted – on behalf of the Almighty – in return for payment. Indulgences were supposed to reduce the time which your soul would spend in Purgatory being purged of all its sins. Luther couldn’t find any justification in Scripture for those ideas; and then he lit upon the fifth chapter of Romans and the idea that we did not earn our salvation. There was nothing that we could give to God to earn his reconciliation, his pardon; but rather it was a free gift, grace; and all we had to do was to have faith.

Those of you who are church historians will know that Martin Luther is supposed to had this insight when he was on the loo. It is known in German as the tower experience – Das Turmerlebnis. The monastery where he lived had a toilet in a tower. Luther said that the idea, that the righteous shall live by faith alone, struck him, like a thunderbolt, in the monastery toilet. He is clearly the patron saint of all those of us who spend too long reading in the smallest room. 

The point was that having experienced the thunderbolt, Martin Luther was changed. In a sense, just like John Wesley after him, he felt he was reborn. I want to read you what Luther wrote in his Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, the passage that so affected John Wesley. Luther translated the New Testament into German, and added his own notes, introductions, to each book. Let me read you how Luther introduced the Letter to the Romans; and you might get a flavour of what he was getting at.

Faith, … is a divine work in us. It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and brings with it the Holy Ghost. 

Oh, it is a living, busy, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly. It does not ask whether there are any good works to do, but before the question arises it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them. He who does not do these works is a faithless man. He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. 

Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. 

It goes right away from the ancient heresy of Pelagius in the second century, that you have to do good works in order to earn your salvation. God has granted salvation, that is, the grace, to everyone who believes and trusts in him. It’s the fact of having received the grace, the assurance of your salvation, that evokes in you an irresistible urge to do good works, to express love for your neighbours.

Luther’s new idea was a dividing line between the Roman Catholics and the newly emerging Protestants. Does it make any difference to us today? As members of the Church of England, we straddle the line between Catholicism and Protestantism. Our church is not really one or the other. We broke away from the Roman Catholic Church because Henry VIII could not organise his marital affairs without clashing with the Pope. Henry in effect carried on with Catholicism but without the Pope. As king he became the “defender of the faith”, fidei defensor in Latin, which you will see on our coins as ‘F.D.’ or ‘Fid. Def.’ But we didn’t have the sale of indulgences or the doctrine of Purgatory any more. People didn’t build chanceries and chapels in which masses for the dead would be said, because people no longer believed that they could, in effect, buy themselves into the kingdom of heaven. 

What is this ‘grace’, though, if we are no longer worried about heaven and hell? We now tend to take rather a sceptical attitude towards what comes next when we die. We think that all those stories about St Peter at the Pearly Gates are more likely to be fanciful than not. Where does that leave us in relation to salvation, justification?

I think we are back to the woman of Samaria: ‘Give me this water that I thirst not’, Jesus having said to her, 

‘Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst;’ 

Our prayer must surely be the same as the Woman of Samaria’s: we need that water. And then our lives will be changed. Even staid respectable souls like us! There may not be a fear of hell and damnation – but how do we stand firm against populism, racism, xenophobia, Trump? We need God’s grace.

How does it work? How do we get it? Is it just a matter of luck, as it seems to have been with John Wesley? Just being in the right place at the right time, and in the right frame of mind? That was how Martin Luther thought it worked. He subscribed to a mystical text which came out in German in the fourteenth century, which Luther published with a preface of his own, in 1516, called the ‘Theologia deutsch’, the German theology, according to which a Christian should surrender his will utterly and completely, opening himself to the divine will and becoming possessed by the spirit of God, becoming vergöttlicht, ‘Godded-up’. 

The point about this is not that you can earn it, but you just have humbly to trust, to believe, to open your mind, to hope that eventually your prayers will be answered. What a good thing to do in this season of Lent!
Let us pray for Luther’s thunderbolt; let us pray for our hearts to be strangely warmed, like John Wesley’s. Then we will, truly, be justified by faith.