God's Open House

Sunday, February 25, 2018

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Anybody who had to study the Reformation, whether in a history class or a class on Christianity or just a book that seemed interesting, has read that the big debate in the Reformation is the question of justification by faith vs. justification by works. Do we receive eternal life because we believe the right things, or because we do the right things? And the Presbyterian answer (and all Christian answers really fall somewhere on this continuum) is that they are inseparably connected.

And at the center of the conversation about faith and works is Paul’s discussion of the relationship between faith and the law in the book of Romans, a portion of which we just read. In Paul’s time, Paul was talking about the relationship between faith and the law. Can following the law make you a good person? During the Reformation, it was a question of the relationship between faith and the church. If the church says that you can buy your way into heaven with indulgences, is it true? Can you be a good person just by following the church, and ignoring, as Jesus said, “the weightier matters of the law”[1]?

And in our day, the question comes down to something similar. Given the sort of follow your heart morality that measures much of our culture, can you boil Christianity down to just being a good person? Does it matter whether or not you believe the things that we talk about in church, if you just do the things that we talk about in church? And the answer for Paul, for the Reformers, and for us today, is that faith and righteousness are inseparably connected. You cannot have faith without righteousness. And you cannot have righteousness without faith.

In the Presbyterian Church we have a famous passage in our constitution, the Book of Order, that states “there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence to discover the truth or embrace it.”[2] You cannot have faith without righteousness, and you cannot have righteousness without faith. This is encapsulated in Jesus’ statement, “You shall know them by their fruits.”[3] Now the first part of that, in the context of modern pragmatism, makes a lot of sense. If you have a set of beliefs that don’t in any way manifest themselves in your life, that’s not faith. That’s entertainment.

But why does it go the other way? Why do Paul and Luther and almost every strain of modern Christianity argue that you have to have faith in order to be righteous? Why can’t you boil Christianity down to just being a good person, and leave the whole belief thing out of it? Why is it that you can’t have righteousness without faith? And the answer is you’re terrible.

I don’t mean that personally. All of us are terrible at being good people. Paul tells us that we cannot possibly live up the law. Not because the law is impossible, but because we are impossible. We’re stubborn and stiff-necked, and easily disheartened. History is littered with attempts to build righteous societies, utopian communes, perfectly just governments, and they all fail to live up to their own standards because of one common denominator: humans. Because of this, our government was built to expect sinfulness. The founders expected abuse of power and sinfulness, so they built a system of checks and balances to mitigate it.

Whenever we try to just be good people, we do a bad job. We get tired, we get overwhelmed, we get disillusioned, and we give up. We start believing in our own righteousness, and put ourselves in the position of God, deciding what is good and what is bad according to what we want. And very quickly being a good person turns into finding a good excuse to do what we want.

Or we define “being a good person” according to what other people are doing. If all the people you grew up with do something, and you’ve always thought of them as good people, then by definition that thing is something that good people do. That’s how we get these big, systemic sins like racism and our lack of concern for the poor – we’ve defined being a good person as somehow inclusive of tolerating those those sins. There is no social evil, no form of injustice, no act of cruelty that we have not tried to justify to ourselves as something a good person would do. And that goes for church too. Religion has been used to justify all manner of evil, and prolong its lifetime. When we define our righteousness by our achievements, we justify the means with the ends, we substitute our own judgment for God’s, and we have nothing to draw on to keep us doing what is good.

We’re terrible at being good people, and we need some anchor to ground us, some poker to prod us, some spirit to strengthen us and hold us accountable if we’re ever going to come close. And that anchor, that poker, that spirit is faith. Not doctrine—the collection of positions and interpretations through which we bludgeon each other. Faith. Faith sustains us. Faith holds us up when the world would get us down. Faith keeps us honest; it pulls us back to God when we’re tempted to make it about ourselves. Only through faith can we bear good fruit that does not turn rancid. And faith is ultimately found in the cross.

Because the definition of a good person has changed, it has a different meaning in every era. But the definition of a Godly person remains the same: one who shapes their life according to the example of Jesus Christ. Faith is the choice to shape your life according to the image of the crucified Christ. It is the image of an all-powerful God who chose the powerlessness and abandonment of the cross, to be identified with and in union with the powerless and abandoned, so that in that unity all might be lifted up. The reason that faith is the only thing we can depend on to reliably produce righteousness is that the cross cannot be coopted by our own selfish nature. The cross is the symbol of God’s radical love of other, God’s choice to experience powerless along with the marginalized, the forgotten, the despairing. Whenever we are tempted to put ourselves first, we are pricked, we are challenged, we are condemned by the reality that Godliness means putting yourself last. Whenever we are tempted to let the ends justify the means we are confronted with the image of one who chose humiliating defeat over self-justifying victory. If we are going to produce lasting fruit, the cross must be the shape of our faith, because in anything else we will eventually fall short.

Jurgen Moltmann, a big deal German theologian of the 20th century who is quickly becoming my favorite theologian, said, “Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided, and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence” [4]

As you get to know me, one of the things you’ll learn is that I am a terrible gardner, but I love to garden. A few years ago, I was growing tomatoes and zucchini on my porch. And I’d get this great big beautiful blossoms, and they would turn into nothing. They would never bear any fruit. And I went online, I looked things up, and it turned out that I was neglecting to care for them properly.

Faith is the flower that brings forth fruit. There is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, between truth and duty. If we want to produce good fruit, we have to care for and nurture a faith that flowers into it.

These Days is a devotional bulletin published by the Presbyterian Church. Just about every Presbyterian church orders a few copies and keeps them on hand for people as devotions. I haven’t ever done anything beyond skimming it, to be honest. But I have something I’ve noticed about that book. Because every church I’ve ever been at has at some point had a shipping or scheduling or something problem with that book. And when that happens, people stop receiving their copies. And one thing I’ve noticed, is that every time that happens, the people who come to me and say, “Where is my copy of These Days?” are almost always among the people in the church whose lives most evidently reveal the presence of Christ. The people who are consistently volunteering, visiting, caring for others, and in general, bearing the good fruit of Christ.

I don’t think this is necessarily about These Days. It just happens that that is one whose supply problems sometimes come to me. I think it could be any good devotional. It’s that people who produce good fruit are tending the flower of their faith on a regular basis.  If we tend our faith, if we pray, if we study, but most of all if we constantly try to conform our lives to the image of Jesus, then our faith will produce good fruit. And it will be reckoned to us as righteousness.



[1] Matthew 23:23

[2] Constitution of the PC(USA), F-3.0104.

[3] Matthew 7:16

[4] Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1973. Translated by R.A. Wilson and John Bowden, 1974.