Sermon for the 10.30 Holy Communion Service on 20th October 2017

Romans 4:1-8; [Luke 12:1-7] – see

‘If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.’ [Rom. 4:2]

What does it mean to be ‘justified’?

This is one of those ‘railway words’ that we get in church. It’s a word like ‘alight’, ‘Alight here for Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon’. You only come across the word ‘alight’ in a railway context. Similarly, ‘justified’ has a special meaning in a church context.

It’s not the same as saying something like ‘He was entirely justified in his opinion that it would be unwise to drink that second bottle of wine, when he woke up the next day with a hangover.’

In that everyday sense of what it means for something to be ‘justified’, it means it turned out to be true; there was a good reason for it. But in the context of our Christian belief, to be ‘justified’ is something different: it means, to be in a right relationship with God.

It is related to the ideas of salvation, of being one of God’s elect: put another way, people in the Bible who are ‘justified’ will go to heaven, will have eternal life. But what does that really mean? This is one of the areas where Martin Luther challenged the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.

Before Luther, the Roman church had operated a system of ‘indulgences’, according to which, if you had committed sins, which otherwise might be classed as being so bad that you could never get into heaven, you could pay a fine, and buy an ‘indulgence’, a confirmation, from a priest who heard your confession, which meant that your sin was forgiven – and the way into heaven was clear.

Luther argued instead that you were saved ‘sola fide’, which is Latin for ‘by faith alone’, and not by buying indulgences – or indeed, not by doing anything. It became one of the defining differences in the Reformation – and this month we are remembering that it is 500 years since Martin Luther, so it’s an occasion to look again at something which has caused a lot of fuss in the past.

Our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans gives a lot of support to the idea that people are saved by faith, rather than by what are called ‘works’ – good works, doing good. The example of Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people, is that there is a distinction between doing a good job, for which you quite rightly earn a reward in the form of salary, and putting your trust in God, who reconciles those who have become estranged from Him, and who does not demand a fee.

Doing something for free – although to the same high standards as if I was doing it as paid work – doing something good for free is worth more than doing something in return for payment. This is generous and kind, right in the spirit of Jesus. It’s like going the extra mile in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in St Matthew Ch. 5. If you show that faith, the faith that doesn’t look for a reward, you will be ‘justified’, you will be forgiven your sins and go to heaven.

But what is ‘heaven’ like? Would you want to go there – if there is somewhere where heaven is? I think we can’t really say where God is. Surely it’s not as simple as being literally ‘up there’, up above the clouds. Being on a spacecraft hasn’t taken astronauts into the kingdom of heaven.

But leaving aside where heaven is, what would getting closer to God, being ‘justified’, mean, for most of us?

Surely, doing good must come into it. Think of what it says in the 1st Letter of John: ‘But whoso hath the world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up the bowels of his compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?’ [1John 3:17] People aren’t fit for salvation, if they behave in a way which belies their status as having received God’s love and being saved, justified.

It’s not a question of earning your right to eternal life. The idea is that faithful people receive salvation as a free gift, through God’s ‘grace’, His generosity. The example of Abraham, according to St Paul, shows how it works. ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now if a man does a piece of work, his wages are not ‘counted’ as a favour; they are paid as debt. But if without any work to his credit he simply puts his faith in him who acquits the guilty, then his faith is indeed ‘counted as righteousness’ (Romans 4:2,3 – NEB). St Paul is referring back to the story of God’s covenant with Abram, Abraham, in Genesis 15:

‘After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Elie’zer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, thou hast given me no offspring; and a slave born in my house will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.’

So far as Martin Luther was concerned, that was it: you couldn’t do anything to be justified, to be put right, in a right relationship, with God: you just had to trust Him: sola fide, by faith alone, you are saved.

Luther didn’t think that the epistles which told Christians to do good works, like the 1st Epistle of John, quoted earlier, or the Epistle of James, were proper scripture – Luther called James’ Letter an ‘epistle of straw’.

Because, you see, James [1:14f] puts the alternative. He says:

‘… what use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? 15 Can that faith save him? Suppose a brother or a sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, 16 and one of you says, ‘Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat’, but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So with faith; if it does not lead to action, it is in itself a lifeless thing.
18 But someone may object: ‘Here is one who claims to have faith and another who points to his deeds.’ To which I reply: ‘Prove to me that this faith you speak of is real though not accompanied by deeds, and by my deeds I will prove to you my faith.’ 19 You have faith enough to believe that there is one God. Excellent! The devils have faith like that, and it makes them tremble. 20 But can you not see, you quibbler, that faith divorced from deeds is barren? 21 Was it not by his action, in offering his son Isaac upon the altar, that our father Abraham was justified? 22 Surely you can see that faith was at work in his actions, and that by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved. 23 Here was fulfilment of the words of Scripture: ‘Abraham put his faith in God, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness’; and elsewhere he is called ‘God’s friend’. 24 You see then that a man is justified by deeds and not by faith in itself. 25 The same is true of the prostitute Rahab also. Was not she justified by her action in welcoming the messengers into her house and sending them away by a different route? 26 As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse.’ [NEB]

Surely Luther was wrong. Even today there are occasions when we go to church, and say our prayers – but still do mean things. Are we ‘justified by faith’, by faith alone? What do you think? Of course Luther was right to object to the church selling indulgences: but surely, if you really have faith, it really ought to make a difference to what you do as well.