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Justified??? What's That?
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version (See also Justification by Faith Alone)
Christmas II - 01/02/11 Is. 61:1-3; Ps. 65; Titus 3:1-7; Mt. 2:19-23
I. In his letter to Titus, Paul is exhorting Titus concerning our salvation.
...He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by His grace and become eternal heirs in hope of eternal life.
The word 'justified' has been used in sometimes contradictory ways by different persons and traditions within the Christian faith. That word is right at the heart of the Christian message, so it is imperative that we come to a consistent and helpful understanding of what that means so that we can intelligently present that faith, first of all to ourselves, to one another as Christians, and then to those outside the faith.
Generally, we mean something like, 'In a right relation with God regarding sin and righteousness.'
We must show to the non-Christian that what we believe is not contradictory, and that it applies to all human being, all persons, just because they are persons. Words have a history, but I am not going to sort out all the different usages to which 'justification' has been put. Rather, I want to begin with the ordinary, non-religious sense of the word.
Often our disputes in religion can be helpfully resolved when we go back to the ordinary use of that word and ask how that might apply -- without all the contradictory history which might have been overlaid in contentious disputations.
The word 'justify' is an ordinary word used commonly to mean 'to give a reason for' something. The something is almost always an activity. In court, a defendant might be asked to give a good reason for, to justify, an act of violence. He might do so by saying that his act of violence was occasioned by the other person assaulting him with a deadly weapon. If he could establish that as a fact, then he would probably be acquitted of a charge of battery or murder.
Or a parent might ask a child why he came in so late last night. Can he justify the lateness of his arrival? Or a child might ask a parent why he did not get any allowance last week. Can the parent justify not giving the allowance?
We ask for justifications when an ordinary expectation is not fulfilled. We want to know why -- to see if some correction is needed.
In the religious arena, justification has to do with sin. We are charged with sin, which means that we did something for which we have no justification. I.e., we cannot give any good reason for having done that act.
II. God gave us a standard for doing things, a standard by which actions are measured as right or wrong. To keep things simple, we will use the Summary of the Law as standing for the whole of the law. We are commanded to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. When we do actions that do not conform to those two commandments, we are in sin, we are doing things which are not right by the standards which God, our Creator, has set for us.
God being "our Creator" is essential to understanding all this. It is His being our Creator out of nothing which enables Him to define our reason for existence. Only the Creator of something can define the reason for the existence of that thing -- for the simple and logical reason that He and only He gave us that existence. And, He knows why He did it. His purpose in creating us is the sum total of our reason for existence.
Sin, then, means violating our reason for existence. Our "reason for existence" is the only way that a difference between right and wrong can be established. That is why, when people abandon God, they also lose their grip on all moral value. They drift toward becoming an amoral culture.
That is what happened in 1962 when our Supreme Court illegally and unconstitutionally outlawed prayer in government schools. The Court, which owed to God its own legitimacy as a court of law, told God to butt out, that they, the Court, would take over God's job as Sovereign, as the decider of the difference between right and wrong. 1962 marks the date when the moral landslide began in America. Only now, after half a century of growing moral chaos and therefore also political chaos, is the American public just beginning to see what we have allowed to happen to us.
It was not only sin on the part of the Court, it was stupid. They are not only forbidden to take the place of God, they are totally unable. There is nothing they can do to determine the reason for the existence of anything at all, other than their own actions and purposes. They cannot decide the meaning of the existence of America or of you or I because they are not the creator-ex-nihilo of America or of us, the people.
But what applies to the Supreme Court applies equally to each one of us. I am logically incapable of determining my own reason for existence. I can determine the reason only for my own actions and attitudes -- because I am the actor who, by my own freewill, is doing them. No one else can determine my reasons for doing what I do. That makes me also solely responsible for my behavior. Or, at least, primarily responsible.
I cannot determine the reason for my existence because my existence is not my act. My existence is an act of God. That is what it means for God to be my Creator. I am not my own creator.
But, if I am not my own creator, and if I therefore cannot give the reason for my own existence, then it follows that I cannot justify my being. I cannot justify, give the reason for, my "self". My self is a creature of God. So if you want to find out why I exist, do not ask me, you have to ask God. I might know why I exist, but I also can find out only by asking God. I cannot make it up on my own.
I can know, without being told, why my behavior exists, why I do certain things, but I cannot know without being told why I exist. That is because I am a behavior of God, not of myself. My existence is God's behavior, not mine.
Socrates set out on his great quest philosophical quest in search of this very principle -- "What is the meaning of man as man? What does it mean for me to be me?" He never found out because he had no concept of a personal creator ex nihilo, and thus no idea of a universal reason for existence. [On Socrates, see The Law & the Grace of God at http://www.theroadtoemmaus.org/EM/ShpMl/Law&Grace/00Law&Grace.htm, esp. Part I-D Addenda]
So, if we look again at Paul's words to Titus, "He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy...," we are, in effect, being told that our deeds have nothing to do with our justification. Justification, when used in the context of salvation, has to do with our being, not our doing. God, and God alone, can define the meaning of my being. There is nothing at all I can do to change that.
Jesus did not die on the cross to save my doings, my behavior. He died on the cross because of my wrong doings, my rebellious or ignorant behavior. It is my behavior which puts Him on the cross. Jesus died to save my being, not my doings. He died to change my doings, not save them.
Once we understand the distinction between our being and our doing, salvation and justification become quite clear.
III. When God gives us the two Great Commandments to love Him and one another, He is giving us our reason for existence. We are created to be a part of a community of love between Himself, us, and our neighbors. That is why we are here.
When we behave in an unloving manner toward either God or each other, we are violating that reason for existence. If we recognize that violation of the will of God and repent, then all is well again, we are back in the will of God, back on track to becoming full members of that community of love. God does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he might repent and live.
But if we continue our rebellion, if our rebellion hardens in us, then we are on the opposite track to losing completely our reason for existence. As C. S. Lewis describes in The Great Divorce, we become so self-destroyed and dysfunctional that we lose our capacity of freewill. We become spastic sinners. We can no longer choose obedience to God. There is no spark of freewill life left in us to be fanned back to life by the winds of the Holy Spirit, so we are cast on the Cosmic Dump, Gehenna (the name for the trash dump outside of Jerusalem). Gehenna, then, is the place where things go which have lost their reason for existence -- just as we do with useless, broken things that have been too long in our closet. Off to Gehenna with them.
God owns us by right of creation, and therefore He also owns our behavior. That is why He can command us. And that is why the Supreme Court (or any other government agency) cannot command us without first receiving that authority from God Himself.
IV. Much of our confusion comes because we fallen humans lose track of God as our Creator -- just a Paul outlines in Romans 1:18 ff. We first subvert truth, so we lose track of who is God, and then we begin to worship the creature rather than the creator. Having now an inadequate God, we fall into compulsive and self-destructive behavior. A one way trip down hill to Gehenna.
Because we now have no clear sense of being the creatures of a loving God, we find ourselves having to create our own personal stability, and our own moral direction. We cannot really do either, but we are very good at pretending. We think that we can justify ourselves, give our own reason for existence. If you do not believe that, ask people out there in the world. Many, probably most, think that they have their own reason for existence, that they can justify themselves.
They do not understand that they can give reasons for their own behavior, but not for their existence. If there is no God, there is no reason for existence. We are al just accidental products of cosmic forces of whatever sort -- whether secular and physical, or pagan and spiritual. We try with might and main to stamp our purposes on reality to create some order in the chaos around us, but it is a poor and painful show at best. And in the end, we all fail. We die.
So, without God, we fall into salvation by works -- just what Paul was addressing: "He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness...." Our deeds can do nothing at all to justify our being. Our being remains accidental, purposeless, and tragic -- no matter how many purposes we try to invent for ourselves. We can invent them only for our doing, not for our being. Our being remains unjustified. There is no good reason for it. None at all. And, without God, there never will be.
That is why we become compulsive doers. We try to gain some sense of being through the admiration of others, some pat on the back, some "well done" which tells us that we are "OK", somebodies, not nobodies. We try to earn our way to a good sense of being. We do things to please others, and when that fails, we often resort to deceit or coercive force.
But none of those strategies and tactics scratch the itch. None of them address my being, and so they do not stick. They are only temporary fixes. Soon, maybe the next morning, I am back in the same dreary state. In my inner being, I remain unresolved, probably plagued by feelings of unworthiness and guilt, which are unresolvable because the feelings are in my being, not in my behavior. There is nothing my behavior can do to change that.
That is the quandary of the fallen world. It cannot save itself. It cannot give itself a sense of secure being. There can be no return to an original innocence and goodness -- because only God can give that. He holds me in the Hand of His creative power, and He directs me by His sovereign Voice. There is no other place to get it.
V. The lesson from Isaiah, 61:1-3, is quoted by Jesus to apply to Himself at the opening of His ministry. "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," He tells the people, meaning that that prophecy was coming to pass right before their eyes. "The Spirit of God is upon me because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good tiding to the afflicted...." The Son of God brought the Spirit of God with Him, so that He could say, "The Kingdom of God is among you!" But they, in His own home town, could not receive it.
Jesus is the Word by whom all things were created, the bearer of that grace and mercy by which we are saved -- He who Is, on whose coattails we even exist. The whole drama of salvation could not have happened if Jesus had not been the only begotten Son of God, the in-the-flesh presence of God on earth. To accept or reject Jesus was to accept or reject God. Only the presence of God Himself could open up the otherwise eternally closed labyrinth of the Fall, to draw us back into dependency upon the Hand of God, setting us free to obey the Voice of God, thus restoring us to our reason for existence. We are given all we need to exit the trap of the Labyrinth and to reenter the Kingdom of God.
In the Gospel, we read the simple story of the return from Egypt back to Judea, with a permanent detour to Galilee because Archelaus, the son of the wicked Herod, was now reigning in Jerusalem.
The Gospels do not discuss the problem wrestled with by Paul, that is, the competition between justification by faith vs. works, but it is clear that what Jesus is aiming at is honest personal relationships of trust and obedience, trust in the Hand of God, our power to be ourselves, freeing us for obedience to His sovereign word. It is clear that when Jesus said that "the Kingdom of God is among you", He meant that He Himself was bringing it, and that He would make the presence of God among them permanent by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament promises of the Spirit of God being implanted into their hearts were coming true.
They were living in the power of God daily. They found that they did not need to repent of who they were, only of what they did. The did not need to repent of their being, because their being was good, a gift of God, a gift with which the could now be in touch. It was given at creation and reaffirmed in salvation. They knew who they were because they now knew whose they were. It is always a good idea for me to be myself. I may have to repent of my doings and my attitudes.
Those faithful early Christians thus experienced a release from the terrors of the Fall, the guilt, the shame, the self-accusation, or the power of demons to control them. All that was now subject to them, first through the power of the Holy Spirit which dwelt in them, and which gave them rock solid personal stability, and secondly through the Word of God which gave them direction and authority over demons, to bring healing, and other miracles, all testifying to the reality of what had happened to them. They found their existence justified, their lives filled with trust and obedience in a way, since Adam and Eve, never before seen on earth, living as a community of Christians who loved both God and each other like no community ever on earth.
That is where we are called to go. Letís make a new beginning in 2011.
Dear heavenly Father, we thank You for the testimonies of the Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs who found that justification of their being which set them free to obey your commands to love you and their neighbors, even unto death. Give us also that power to be freely ourselves and obedient to your word. In Jesus name who came to make that possible. Amen.
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