Continuing the sermon series on some of the key teachings of
, this morning’s task is to consider Paul’s
themes of faith, justification and grace also seen through the eyes of
Augustine, Luther and Wesley. St Paul
Firstly a reminder of
context: he would have been an observer of the impact of Jesus’ life and
teaching (hence his persecutions of the new Jewish/Christian sects) but not a
follower of Jesus until after his dramatic encounter on the St
Paul Damascus Road.
His sources for his writing would have been discussions with some of
those who were disciples and followers of Jesus, together with the Hebrew
Scriptures, of which he was a diligent scholar.
The Apostle Peter was a close associate of Paul, as referenced in the
letters and also the book of the Acts of the Apostles.
Let us also note that many of Paul’s letters are some of the earliest produced Christian writings. This letter to the Galatians is believed to have been written between the late 40s and early 50s CE, whereas the earliest Gospel, that of St Mark, is believed to have been written in the mid to late 50s CE.
In the reading we heard earlier Paul begins with a clear statement of his central theological affirmation: “ … we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ”. A simple enough statement we may think, but for the early Jewish Christians, somewhat difficult to embrace because for Jews the mark of their covenant with God was their diligence in keeping the law and rituals such as circumcision, keeping the Sabbath and the food laws. So what was to happen when Gentiles (that is anyone not a Jew) came into the Christian community? Should they too be circumcised and keep the law?
Paul’s answer is an emphatic no: ‘we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.’
During the fourth century Augustine of Hippo was a foremost scholar and intellect and is regarded even now as one of the most influential theologians of Christian thought, especially concerning his in-depth study of Paul’s writings.
Augustine’s view of salvation follows from the starting point that people are sinful and unable to respond to God of their own accord, therefore God must initiate salvation. It is Augustine who developed the doctrine of ‘original sin’; we cannot contribute anything to the process of making ourselves acceptable to God, so justification for Augustine is entirely God’s work, it is God who makes people righteous. This righteousness is a gracious gift of God, and Augustine believed, becomes part of the inner person. There is a change in our nature as it were, which continues throughout life, until we reach our final home in heaven where perfection awaits.
This approach distinguishes Augustine from Luther and the Protestant Reformers, who understood justification to describe God’s activity of attributing or imputing righteousness to sinful humanity as the ground of acceptance.
When coming to the theology of Martin Luther we need to recognize we have jumped a good few hundred years from the fourth century to the end of the fifteenth century, and during this time the Christian Church (which we now call the Roman Catholic Church) had developed belief and practice in many ways. One of these shifts was towards the practice of associating salvation with good works, so essentially you could earn your way in to God’s good books as it were by what you did, including paying the Church to have priests pray for your soul (the practice of selling indulgences).
Luther diligently studied the Scriptures, especially Paul’s letter to the Romans, and concluded also that through the grace of God, people receive the gift of faith which justifies them.
He explained justification this way: all have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It is only necessary to believe this as an act of faith. Being made right with God cannot be achieved by any work, law, or merit. Faith alone justifies us. This is the essence of Luther’s theology of salvation. Moreover, the faith of the believer is personal, it embraces trust in the promises of God and it unites the believer to Christ.
Faith in the righteousness of Christ then attributes righteousness to the believer for the forgiveness of sins; note the difference with Augustine who said faith imparts righteousness.
Fast forward to the eighteenth century and John Wesley. For Wesley (The Essential Works of John Wesley 2011), salvation is inextricably linked with faith. In its broadest sense, Wesley describes faith as a new way of seeing: by which we perceive the previously unseen spiritual world, and become convinced of God and his work.
For Wesley, justification is the moment in which a person is pardoned of their sins and reconciled to God: “It is the forgiveness of all our sins.” The moment of justification brings about a “real” personal change: which includes feelings of peace, hope, and
joy; the reception of the Holy Spirit as a
confirming witness to justification; a sense of “the love of God shed abroad”
in the heart; and, most importantly for Wesley, the emergence of “love to all
mankind” and the leaving behind of sinful attachments. This real change is the
beginning of sanctification. Implied in
Wesley’s perspective is a conscious moment when a person turns in penitence and
faith to God.
Again, Wesley sees the grace of God at work in all this both before we are aware of God in our lives, then as we respond to God’s reconciling love and the grace for the life’s
journey, we grow in the likeness of Christ.
So for all our theologians there are some differences but some strong similarities. They have all been compelled to study the Scriptures and work out for themselves some of the core principles of understanding God and Christ.
Implicit in these is the cultural and social context in which they seek to apply this understanding, and therefore we can observe the subtle changes in emphasis and interpretation as human society grows and develops. There’s a hint of this in the Gospel reading today as Jesus teaches in the synagogue at Nazareth and people are astounded at what he is saying, but, as the saying goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ and they are unable to receive what he brings but take offence.
Scripture continues to be interpreted and applied, it is after all ‘living and active’, and it is important that interpretation continues carefully and faithfully. We must not remain stuck with a literalist, simplistic reading of Scripture and therefore do well to take seriously our own studies, either through personal reading or
joining a group or course such as Exploring
One of the ways in which the interpretation of the passage has moved on in recent years has become know as the ‘new perspective on Paul’. In a very small nutshell, this has focused on the Greek phrase which has been translated ‘faith in Christ’, and which is now suggested may more accurately be translated as ‘the faith of Christ’ or ‘the faithfulness of Christ’. I won’t go into the implications of this, but it may be worth pondering the significance of the difference.
I believe then that the development of interpretations of Scripture is a Godly process because our awareness of the infinite Creator has to grow alongside other areas of intellectual endeavour. If this were not the case we would still be sacrificing children, leaving disabled people to die and owning slaves.
Our current theological challenges in the Church worldwide are over human sexuality, marriage, gender and in certain quarters still about women priests and bishops. But change will happen and new challenges will be faced - I can’t imagine how we’re going to deal theologically with artificial intelligence.
But my hope for the future lies in the grace and love of God, which are evident in all the writers I have mentioned. The overwhelming emphasis, stemming from Paul’s theology, is God is always at work to seek us out, offering the Godself to the world in continuing, creative, overflowing love.
It is also clear that for Paul, the Christian life is all about participation in Christ, that we live in and through Christ: ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’. So the quality of our life, individually and in community reflects the nature and life of Christ. Being in Christ is reflected in lives characterised by faith, hope and love. Moreover, we receive the empowering of the Holy Spirit who endows us with the fruits of the Spirit: love,
joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and
self-control. Think of a world where these are the dominant virtues -
this goes some way to describing the . Our theological skip through some historical
writings of great Christian thinkers may have started with justification, faith
and grace but the destination is always the increase of the Kingdom of God , on earth and within us. Kingdom of God