Saved by Faith
Synopsis: Paul’s understanding of being saved by faith needs to be disentangled from the Protestant understanding of being saved by faith “alone.” Paul’s concern in his letter to the Romans was not about being judged by an angry God when we die. It was rather about God’s purpose in repairing the earth and about healing the relationship between Gentiles and Jews. He paints the human condition of sin in dark hues and, as a counterpoint, he paints our new life in Christ in vivid colors. This speaks powerfully to congregations in our day that recognize that there is something profoundly wrong with civilization as we know it. Our communal life and our faith in action is the vanguard of God’s new world coming.
Paul’s claim that we’re saved by faith needs to be disentangled from the way 16th century Protestants understood it. The young Martin Luther, who became the leading Protestant reformer, struggled mightily with his sense of guilt before an angry God. All his good works and acts of penance couldn’t relieve his guilt for his sin. He then latched onto Paul’s teaching of justification by faith, which he understood as being saved by faith alone.
This was different from Paul’s understanding in two ways. First, Paul didn’t struggle with a guilty conscience before God. Even his graphic depiction of struggle against sin in Romans chapter 7 is not so much personal as a depiction of the human condition. Second, Luther agonized about appearing before the judgment throne of an angry God. Paul didn’t have the same concern. For him, salvation was more about God’s work in repairing the earth than about eternal judgment.
The Protestant reformers used their doctrine of salvation by faith alone in their polemics against Catholics and Anabaptists who they accused of thinking they could be justified before God through good works. Both denied that and said they understood that our salvation depends on God’s grace. They, however, refused to separate faith and works the way the Protestants did. Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier insisted:
Faith alone and by itself is not sufficient for salvation . . . Now, we do not want to be mouth Christians only, to boast and say: O yes, we believe that Jesus Christ suffered agony and death for us. Rather, faith must express itself also in love to God and neighbor. Thus John teaches us when he says: Little children, let us not love in word and speech but in deed and truth.
Paul was scornful of works without faith, of public piety rooted in culture religion and even social privilege. We see lots of that in politicians and even religious leaders in our day. But, for him, the notion of faith alone didn’t make sense. Faith and works or faith in action necessarily go hand-in-hand. His faith hero was Abraham who trusted God enough to leave his homeland and venture on a journey into a foreign land with the promise of God’s blessing. While Abraham’s faith was sorely tested, and he sometimes failed miserably, he held onto the promise that he and his descendants would be a blessing to all the nations of the world.
We often make Paul’s letter to the Romans, more complicated than it needs to be. Remember, it’s a letter being carried to Rome by the deacon Phoebe and it had to make sense to people in the churches there. I’m sure Phoebe was an intelligent woman, but she wasn’t a trained theologian. She would have had to answer questions about it that ordinary followers of Jesus in Rome would certainly ask.
As I said last week, Paul’s overriding concern was the equality of Jews and Gentiles. That’s the central argument of his letter to the Romans. Theologians tend to go off on tangents by focusing on a particular part of the letter. We always need to pull ourselves back to the overriding premise that we’re all one in Christ. That’s not hard to understand is it?
The radical vision of equality and of healing the divisions of ethnicity, class, and gender began in those Christian fellowships sprouting up in the cities of the Roman Empire, but “what about the great big world outside those small assemblies.” That’s precisely the subject of Romans. It’s about God’s passionate desire to heal a broken world, to end the normalcy of injustice founded on violence, and to bring about a unified and peaceful earth.”
The first eight chapters, by far the largest part of the letter, are about healing the divide between Gentiles and Jews. Paul refutes the Jewish claim that Gentiles needed to convert and become Jews to gain God’s favor. Today, we have pretty much stood that argument on its head with the claim that Jews need to convert and become Christians to be saved. We won’t get into that today. It would be a whole other sermon.
Paul talks a lot about God’s righteousness or justice; the two words are synonymous. We tend to think of justice in relation to punishment for wrongdoing. That was Luther’s quandary as he struggled with the belief that God must rightly punish us for our sins. Punishment for crime is also at the heart of our American criminal justice system. But what if we instead think of justice as an effort to repair that which has been broken? It doesn’t leave offenders off the hook, but it changes the equation. Instead of unduly focusing on punishment, the focus becomes making right the wrong that was done. That’s what the recent movement of victim-offender reconciliation is about. There’s now a whole new field of restorative justice that applies this in schools, policing, and courts of law.
Another way to think about justice is as distributive justice. Socially it means that there’s no distinction based on ethnicity, gender, or hierarchy. Economically, it means a just distribution of the earth’s resources. We’re all God’s beloved children. At the center of Paul’s letter is the conviction that being reborn and empowered by God’s Spirit is available to all, both Jews and Gentiles.
Paul paints with dark colors as he describes human sin. Everyone, both Gentiles and Jews, are without excuse. Gentiles, because what can be known about God is clearly visible to them in creation, but they choose to ignore it. Jews, because while they pride themselves in being God’s covenant people and having God’s law, fail to follow the law they have been given. All are under the power of sin.
Rather than getting into the specifics about Paul’s inditement of human sinfulness in his time, we can ponder its deeper accuracy. “There seems to be something profoundly wrong and seriously askew, if not with human nature then at least with the normalcy of human civilization, with what Paul . . . called the ‘wisdom of this world.’”
I have seen this with my own eyes during my eight year mission assignment in the Philippines. I visited people living in horrible slums on garbage dumps. As a young man, I was almost overwhelmed by the hunger and suffering I encountered. There was an active insurgency in the countryside where I worked. Communist rebels were fighting against the Philippine military supported by the United States. I never experienced actual fighting but came uncomfortably close several times. I saw shot up buildings and heard accounts of what had happened from people who lived there. Both sides were capable of horrible cruelty and torture. Violence is the drug of choice in human civilization and our addiction now threatens creation itself.
The United States is a great nation dedicated to liberty and justice for all but that has never been true for everyone. I’ve always known that but thought we were slowly making progress. It now appears that our politics is coming apart at the seams. Money, power, and sex have become idols that drive our public life. Perhaps it was always like this but now the cover has been ripped off. How can we be part of the process of healing our nation and our world?
I will talk more about this in my following sermon. Today I want to emphasize that for Paul it begins with our new life in Christ, which he paints in vivid colors. He tells the church in Corinth, “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). I love it when I see that kind of spiritual growth in myself and in those I’m called to pastor. To me, that’s what it means to be saved by faith. And if the word “faith” carries too much baggage in our American religious culture, we can substitute it with other cognate words like “trust” and “faithfulness”.
Paul told the church in Corinth, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5: 17-18). The reconciliation we have experienced in Christ becomes our ministry of reconciliation for those we interact with in our community, in our nation, and in our world. For me, this is at the heart of my call to be a pastor. I love it when I see such faith in action in the church that I’m called to pastor. Look at us! Sure we’re imperfect but we really are a fellowship that strives to live love, grow justice, and welcome everyone. I see it in our lives, our relationships, our passions, and our good deeds.
 Walter Klaassen, ed. Anabaptism in Outline (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 43.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, 157.
 Ibid., 164.
 Ibid., 166.