In a recent sermon I mentioned that this is the 500th anniversary this year of the European Reformation. On October 31, 1517 a monk in Germany by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the local church calling for an academic debate on them. At least, that is how the story came to be told.
What is clear is that Luther’s challenge to the system of indulgences went ‘viral’. Luther challenged the idea that the Pope had the authority or ability to release people from ‘purgatory’ so buying bits of paper in order to get friends and relatives released early was a complete waste of time and money. Ultimately, the Reformation wasn’t about abstract theological ideas: it was about authority.
But behind the challenge to authority there were theological ideas and in the coming years, Luther was to spell them out. These ideas, at least as far as Luther was concerned, were anything but abstract. They came from intense personal experience.
Luther had been destined to become a lawyer. This was what his father had planned for him. (Some things don’t change!) Then one day, on a journey, he was caught in a storm and feared for his life. He promised St Anne that if she were to save him, he would become a monk. He did live and he honoured his promise.
Being a monk, however, did not make him happy. He took the whole business seriously – some including his confessor – felt too seriously. He wanted to please God, but never felt good enough or that he could do enough to please God. When he came across the phrase the ‘righteousness of God’, it only served to remind him of how unrighteous he was.
Then while preparing lectures on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he came to see that the righteousness of God wasn’t about condemning sinners, but offering them the opportunity to be forgiven for their sins, freely, without having to do anything except have faith and trust in Christ.
No need then for pilgrimages, confessions, religious acts and devotions, good works, penances and all the other things that were part of medieval religion. The discovery changed his life and was to change Europe and the world.
The doctrine of ‘justification by faith and not works’ was to become central to Protestantism. This the Protestants believed was the message of the New Testament and the Bible. ‘God forgave our sins in Jesus’ name’ - as we shall sing later in the service. It is an amazing message and it has brought freedom and liberation to many. It is celebrated in many of the hymns we sing, for example, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…’
Nowadays there is no argument over it. What was once a source of division between Catholics and Protestants is so no longer. If you were to put a Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican in a room and get them to discuss justification by faith, there would be little disagreement between them. Indeed, I would argue that a radical version of justification by faith is the present message of all the churches.
What we preach is that Jesus is an inclusive, welcoming, forgiving, and accepting Saviour. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you have come from, or what you have done, Jesus loves and welcomes and accepts you. In some versions of the message, we drop the whole ‘Saviour forgiving sins’ bit. Jesus is not the sort of person to condemn us for what we have done: after all, who is to say what is right or wrong?
Now I don’t want to spoil the party, and I like the idea that I don’t have to worry about what I have done as much as anyone. Clearly, as Luther discovered, the New Testament does tell us that God forgives us our sins and that it is all about his grace made available to us through faith (we will talk more about this when we study Ephesians).
Luther discovered justification by faith while studying Romans. The problem, however, is that while Romans undoubtedly teaches justification by faith, it also teaches judgment by works. In Romans, God is a God who gets angry with sin and while he forgives those who turn to him by faith in Christ, he punishes those who fail to live as he requires.
Take, for example, this passage from chapter 2:
‘For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.’ (Romans 2:6-11)
It is perhaps not surprising that these verses, and others like them in Romans, cause huge problems for those seeking to write commentaries on the letter. We know that human works do not count. The trouble is that there are many passages in both Romans and the rest of the New Testament where it seems that they do.
All of which brings us to this morning’s passage from 1 Corinthians 3.
You will remember that the Corinthians were dividing into the ancient equivalent of fan clubs around various Christian leaders. In dealing with the problem, St Paul diplomatically avoids talking about St Peter and instead discusses himself and Apollos who is part of his circle. He discusses their respective roles in ministering to the Corinthians.
St Paul says that he planted, that is he established the Church, while Apollos watered, that is help it to grow. Each St Paul says will one day find their work judged and will be rewarded accordingly. St Paul says that he has applied this teaching about our work being judged to himself and Apollos, but it is true for all of us. As St Paul is to write subsequently to the Corinthians:
‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10)
This is a message we prefer to ignore or to see as a minor part of the New Testament. However, the idea that we will all be judged according to our works, that is, to how we have lived our lives is central, not peripheral, to our Lord’s teaching while he was on earth.
It is a theme of many of his parables. Yes, of course, we love the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the story who of the Father who reaches out to his lost son and accepts him back and forgives him despite everything he has done. We take heart from the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go off in search of the one that is lost.
But what of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats where the Son of Man separates people into sheep and goats? Each are judged on how they have lived with the sheep who represent the righteous inheriting eternal life, but the goats who represent those who have failed to live as our Lord expects being sent to eternal punishment.
How, in other words, are we to hold together justification by faith and judgement by works?
Obviously, we can’t decide this issue this morning. What we can say is that we must hold them together. While it is tempting to favour one at the expense of the other to do so is not to be true to the Word of God. And while it’s easy to see why we prefer one to the other, that doesn’t make it right.
One of my favourite TV programmes is the BBC programme, Dr Who. I particularly like the present incarnation of the Doctor who is played by the actor Peter Cipaldi. He is the oldest actor to play Dr Who and as grey hair. You may be able to guess why such a representation might appeal to me!
One of the most famous quotes of the Doctor is:
‘We are all stories in the end. Just make it a good one’.
All good stories have their ups and downs, high and low points, happy times and sad. ‘Justification by faith’ reassures us that when we make a mess of things, when we fail and screw up, that God will forgive us and that his approval and love of us is not based on our works. We won’t in other words be judged on the individual chapters, we will, however, be judged and that ought to encourage us to take seriously how we live and what our priorities in life are.
What will be our story?
One of my favourite prayers comes from an Anglican funeral service:
Lord, give us grace to use aright
the time that is left to us here on earth.
Lead us to repent of our sins,
the evil we have done and the good we have not done;
and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son,
in the way that leads to the fullness of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.