Justification and how we are saved is still very much a live wire in Christian dialogue today, as I think we have proved on this blog several times over. Nevertheless, while there are very real differences between how Roman Catholics and Reformational Christians of various sorts understand this doctrine, the divide is probably not as wide as we make it out to be. After all, if there is one thing that can be demonstrated by the Joint Declaration on Justification between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, it is that we are able to talk about justification using the same language when we want to do so. Everyone agrees that salvation comes uniquely through Jesus Christ and we all agree that this is rendered to us uniquely through grace and by faith, though there is significant disagreement about exactly how to define these terms. So where then does the heart of the disagreement lie?
It is easy to get lost in the small details and miss the big picture here. If we want to truly understand where the division takes place, we have to take our eyes off of the abstract theological concepts and take a good hard look at the facts on the ground. The division lies, ultimately, in how we pastor our people.
Feeding the Sheep
A parish priest is first and foremost a pastor. The Risen Lord asks Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” When Simon Peter replies, “You know that I do,” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). This is not a word to all Christians. It is specifically a word to Peter and the other apostles, a word which then is carried to their successors, the bishops, and which they share with their presbyters. Those of us who don the clerical collar are to feed the lambs of Christ. And Christ has been very specific about what we are to feed them. We are to give them the Gospel. We are to give them Christ for the sake of their salvation.
We feed the sheep through the celebration of the holy Mysteries, through the cup of Christ’s Blood and His Body broken, through the water of regeneration, through the words of absolution, through the Word preached and taught from the pulpit, and through the individual contact with each person, standing with them in the midst of both their celebrations and sorrows to speak God’s Word into the room.
Real Words With Real People
But how do we approach it? What do we say? This may seem like a secondary question, a matter not of content but of style, but surely it is the opposite. If the entire congregation on a Sunday morning is people who are apathetic at best about their faith, what should the pastor say to them from the pulpit to change that? What word does he bring to the man about to undergo an operation, or the couple who has been living together for three years with one child already and another on the way who have finally decided to get married, or the mother of a child who has died before there was a chance to baptize him? What hope is there for the habitual sinner who cannot seem to escape slavery to her favorite sin or the skeptical teenager who has been bought and sold by the culture three times over already and sees you as just another in a long line of people with their hand out?
These are not idle questions. The way we priests answer them makes up not only the fabric of our ministry but the entire tapestry of spiritual life on the ground in a parish. As a priest, every time I show up in one of these settings, every time I open my mouth, I am taking someone’s eternal soul into my hands. Therefore, the doctrine of justification is not abstract. It is the beacon that I use every day in my life as a parish priest to let me know whether I am near or far from leading people to the path that leads to righteousness. If I do not have justification clear in my head, I risk leading the sheep of Christ off a cliff instead of into His waiting arms. I risk poisoning the sheep instead of feeding them.
There is a common usage in today’s Episcopal Church of the term pastoral that is highly misleading. We say, “Oh, Father Smith is very pastoral,” when we mean that Father Smith is very nice. He has a gentle way about him. He makes people feel good. Likewise, we call the ministry of making people feel good pastoral care. But this is not what it means to be a pastor. Being nice is all well and good, but the pastor’s task is to speak the Word to you. It is to ensure that you receive the Word of eternal life. Sometimes that will make you feel good. Other times that will make you feel miserable. The parish priest has to determine which Word you need when and to apply it.
How to Beat the Gospel Back Out of People
So how does this tease out the differences over the doctrine of justification? Quite simply, it is the difference between preaching the Gospel that points only to Christ or a new kind of law that points people finally back to themselves. The temptation with the room full of apathetic, going-through-the-motions Sunday morning pew sitters is to yell at them, to tell them that unless they get out there and start loving God and their neighbor, God is going to smite them, so they better get to it. Equally, the temptation when one has a sinner sitting in front of them is to say, “Change your ways, or else!” And there is a certain warrant for that, at least at first. It is true that there must be a kind of conviction that takes place, which means that sin must be confronted and the conscience must be awakened with the application of the law. But the conversation cannot be left there or else there is no cross and no good news. So we say, “Jesus died for you. Your sin is forgiven. You’re made new in Him.”
So far, so good. The priest who wishes to bring people to Christ stops right there with the truth of the Gospel held out before his people like a golden key to unlock all the mysteries of heaven. But the priest who denies the doctrine of justification, or who accepts something akin to the Roman version, is apt to go on, to say, “Now that you know what Jesus did for you, get out there and stay pure, never falling into your old ways, doing good things. You are God’s hands and feet in the world. He’s relying on you to make the difference. He needs you to apply it in your life. He’s made it possible for you to be saved, but now you have to live that out through your own good works.” And once you have done that, the whole project is lost.
The People Left Out
If justification and sanctification are not just God’s work being done in and for me by Christ, but also my work of responding to God and giving Him my best, then ultimately I am left with despair, because the very best that I have will never be enough to vanquish my sin or to fill the big empty hole that lives inside of me. And I will always be left to wonder whether I really have it, whether I am a real Christian or not, whether I am really saved or just in the queue where they give out salvation to all the good little boys and girls. Furthermore, this presents a real challenge to the person who simply has no capacity to respond to the call in the ways we might encourage, the person who is schizophrenic, the person who suffers from some form of neurological deficiency, the baby just born who does not yet have reason and recourse to do good works, the elderly person with dementia who is never quite the same from hour to hour. If justification is not just God’s work for them but their work with Him, where do they begin? What hope can they possibly have? The standard answer is both unbiblical and unsatisfying. “God only holds us to the standard of our own capacity.” Well, then, why does God bother to hold us to any standard at all since none of us have the capacity to come to God of our own free will, given that we start out “dead in our sin” (Ephesians 2:1-5)? But if our salvation is God’s work alone, there is both hope and comfort for people in all conditions who can look to their Baptism and know that Christ has saved them, who can look to the Word that has been preached in their hearing and know that it brings faith.
The Joy of True Justification in Christ
If we preach self-justification to our people, regardless of what name we give it, we rob our people of the pearl of great price. Richard Hooker says it beautifully:
Such we are in the sight of God the Father as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly, or phrensy, or fury, or whatsoever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this: that man hath sinned and God hath suffered; that God hath made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God.
The Word that Christ has given to His apostles with which to feed His sheep is the Word that we who are not righteous have actually been made righteous, that we who are sinners have been made saints, because Jesus Christ has switched places with us. He has not only taken our punishment, He has filled us with His holiness that we might be seen by the Father as the very image of the Son. Thus, Hooker again says:
Although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man who in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin, him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it, and accepteth him in Jesus Christ as perfectly righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law?
It is more than just forgiveness. It is more than just a second chance. It is more than we can ever hope to achieve through moral shaming or bucking up. What Christ has done for us is to make it as if we were deserving of His share, not in an artificial way but in a real way. And that good Word, given to the sinner who has become convicted of his or her sin, is quite enough to change the heart and cure the soul. But we don’t believe it. We think there has to be more, so we apply extra bits. There are a variety of ways these extra bits come out, be it the added works of Rome, the added testimonies and declarations of faith of the Evangelical, or the added social justice and healing of the world of the Liberal. In all cases, it is no longer just Christ. It is Christ plus [insert extra item here]. As soon as we make it Christ plus anything else of our own making, we are doomed.
Christ is not a possession. His grace is a gift that runs through the hands of the priest like water, into the waiting parched mouths of the people of God. We need not add anything to the mix to make it better. We need only to open our hands and let the living water run through, to open our mouths and drink.