Talk One: Moving on
October 31 was for many Churches the day that they marked the European Reformation of the 16th Century, the 500th Anniversary of which has been commemorated during the past year. The Reformation was about many things, but one idea stands out: the doctrine of ‘justification by faith’. This is the belief that human beings are saved not by anything they do, but solely by the grace of God through faith. Human works cannot earn favour with God. As Luther himself put it, ‘If faith is not without all, even the smallest, works, it does not justify.’
This was an important insight and a corrective to much thinking at the time. Pendulums, however, swing from side to side and this particular pendulum swung quickly to the other side with the result that the question for many protestants, who adopted ‘justification by faith as their core belief, was about the place human works. If doing good works doesn’t count towards our salvation, what then is the point of good works? And what to make of all those parts of the Bible that seem to suggest that they do make a difference and a very real difference at that?
For many Protestants, the answer was quite simple: either get rid of them or just ignore them. For example, in the letter of St James, the writer tells us that ‘faith without works is dead’. For St James, who, incidentally, was the brother of Jesus, faith is, of course, important but it has to translate into action. For Luther, however, the mere suggestion that works were of value led him to dismiss St James’ epistle as ‘a right strawy epistle’ – as he famously called it. This was unfortunate, and lead to people playing off St Paul, who was believed to teach ‘justification by faith’, with St James, who was thought to teach ‘justification by works’.
The argument over this, and related issues, continued for many years causing much division, bitterness, and hurt until the Churches came to their senses and saw that, in fact, both were true. We cannot earn God’s grace and forgiveness, but having received it as a gift, we need to show it in how we live. Or, as St Paul puts it, what counts is ‘faith working through love’. The sad thing is that it takes more than the realisation that it has been a false argument to heal the divisions of centuries, and 500 years of division are not going to end any time soon.
The argument over how we receive the grace and forgiveness of God was an issue that needed talking about and there were problems in the Church that needed dealing with. The argument and division that resulted is, however, something that Christians should both repent and be ashamed of. Incredibly, there are still those who, not only are not ashamed of the division and hatred of the past, but who want to perpetuate it and continue to fight the battles of five hundred years ago.
However, while we perpetuate and even enjoy re-enacting the battles of the past, the world has simply moved on - as, indeed, to be fair, have most Christians. Again, this is not for one moment to suggest that these issues are unimportant or those involved 500 years ago were not sincere in their faith. It is to suggest that Christians need to realize that the issues that were so important 500 years ago are not issues today. In the past, the issue that troubled people may have been how they could receive God’s grace and forgiveness. It is, however, not so much an issue for most people in the present. Even those nations that regarded themselves as Christian nations 500 years ago, regard themselves as such no longer. They have not only moved on, they have moved away – a long way away from the Church and Christian faith.
Most people in our society are not atheists who deny the existence of God, they are agnostics who think that it impossible to know one way or another. And make no mistake, many who come to Church each Sunday are not paid up believers, they too are agnostics!
Christians believe that God is a God of grace who freely offers forgiveness to those who come to him in faith. The challenge for Christians today is how to answer those for whom the question is not, ‘How can I, a sinner, stand before a righteous God?’, but whether there is a God to stand before. And, perhaps even more challenging, for Christians to show that they have an answer that matters to people in their daily lives. For it is one thing to believe there is a God; seeing how that belief affects us in our daily lives another altogether.