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ST. JAMES DOES NOT CONTRADICT ST. PAUL'S DOCTRINE THAT WE ARE JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, NOT BY WORKS
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, 16th Week of the Year, July 24, 2017
Exodus 14:5-18, Exodus 15, Matthew 12:38-42


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted

 

"And Moses said to the people, ‘Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.' The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea'" (Exodus 14:13-16).


This is Israel's exodus from Egypt, the central saving act of Yahweh for his people in the Old Testament. It is clearly presented as an act of God saving his people from death and slavery. This was clearly not a victory that Israel herself won over Egypt. It was not even a combination of Israel's military might plus the grace of God blessing her military prowess. The sacred text presents it - and Israel experienced it - as an act of God in which Israel was helpless and passive. Israel was simply in a hopeless situation, about to be destroyed by the Egyptian army. The sea stood before them blocking their way. They were completely trapped. No route of escape lay open to them. The death and destruction of the people was all that could now take place.


Then suddenly Moses is told by Yahweh to lift up his rod and wave his hand over the sea and divide it so that Israel could walk across it on dry land. So they escaped from Pharaoh's armed chariots. And not only that, but when the Egyptians pursued Israel into the sea, just as Israel was coming out of it on the other side, Yahweh told Moses to stretch out his hand again and wave it over the sea to make the water unite again on top of the Egyptians, and they were all drowned.


"But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians ... And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did against the Egyptians" (Exodus 14:30-31).


This is an act of God's salvation. The people simply had faith in God, and he saved them. Israel saw the great work which the Lord did for them, something totally beyond human powers to do. It was clearly an act of God done for them and passively received by them. It was not Israel's goodness or strength or merit that gained or earned them this salvation.


Israel's part was just to "stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today" (Exodus 14:13). Who will perform this salvation? It is "the salvation ... which he will work for you" (Exodus 14:13). The Lord will fight. Israel only needed to be still and watch him act. He will act. Israel will passively receive. "The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still" (Exodus 14:14).


This is important for us today too, for St. Paul clearly teaches us that we are justified before God by faith, not by works (Romans 3:20, 28; Galatians 2:16). This is because God steps in and sends his own Son to die in our place for our sins, when we are lost sinners without good works or merits of our own, guilty of violating God's law and deserving eternal death for them, unable in any way to earn our salvation.


When we put our faith in what Christ has done for us, God counts Christ's death on the cross as paying what we owe God for our sins, and God declares us acquitted and righteous. It is clearly Christ's work on the cross, not our good works, that have earned and merited our justification.


Unfortunately many people today find this hard to accept for several reasons. First of all, it goes against the natural human feeling that we only receive from God what we deserve by our own works. But this, fortunately, is not the way God works with us sinners who can't merit and don't deserve salvation from our sins. We see in the exodus from Egypt that the people did not deserve to be saved from the Egyptians, nor were they capable of saving themselves at the Red Sea.


The Bible clearly tells us that God alone saved them by his own miraculous work in splitting the sea at just the right moment, when Moses waved his hand over it, and in letting it flow back again at just the right time, when Israel had passed through it and while the whole Egyptian army was in the midst of it, as Moses again waved his hand over it. No human being has the power to split the sea by waving his hand. This act of salvation was clearly God's act alone. The Israelites were simply the passive recipients of God's saving action.


Another reason why many people today refuse to accept that we are justified by faith, not by works is because St. James appears to contradict St. Paul on this very point, saying, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). But God is the divine author of Scripture, and God can't contradict himself. What seems like a contradiction is really no contradiction at all, because St. Paul and St. James are using the word "justify" in two different senses.


By justification St. Paul means that God declares us righteous, because of Christ's merits on the cross, when we put our faith in Christ. But by justification St. James means that God both justifies and sanctifies us, which of course can't be done only by faith without works, for sanctification is a lifelong gradual process of growing in holiness that depends on the interaction of God's grace with our good works.


Christian theology of justification should be based on St. Paul's narrower and more precise use of the word "justification." St. James' teaching should then be used when we are talking about sanctification, that is, growing gradually in holiness by our good works.


The basic act of God setting us right with him with all our sins forgiven and we being undeservedly acquitted of them and declared by God to be righteous, all this is done by God alone without any contribution of our own except our faith in Christ's saving act, for this faith connects us with Christ's saving act and so enables God to justify us, canceling our guilt and the eternal punishment due for our sins, and making us righteous with the righteousness of Christ himself reckoned to us.


Then, of course, once acquitted, forgiven, and justified - not by our works but by faith - we immediately must begin the lifelong gradual process of sanctification, which requires a life of good works, which is what St. James tells us.


St. Paul teaches us that God's salvation in Jesus Christ is like God's salvation in the exodus. It is completely God's marvelous work, which we don't deserve or earn in any way. It is simply a matter of "Stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today ... The Lord will fight for you, and you only have to be still" (Exodus 14:13-14).


St. Paul says the following about how God saves us in Jesus Christ by faith, not by works: "No human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law" (Romans 3:20). "We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28). We "know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified" (Galatians 2:16). "By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9 NKJV).


The Council of Trent's Decree on Justification says the same thing that St. Paul says: "We are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification - whether faith or works - merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace" (# 8).


The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, signed in 1999, says the same: "Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works" (#15).


The Joint Declaration also says: "We also share the conviction that the message of justification directs us in a special way towards the heart of the New Testament witness to God's saving action in Christ: it tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way" (#17).


And the Joint Declaration says: "We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law' (Romans 3:28). Christ has fulfilled the law and by his death and resurrection has overcome it as a way to salvation. We also confess that God's commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God's will which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also" (#31).


In short, in the proper, precise, and narrow sense of St. Paul, we are justified by faith, not by works, because of the reparation-making work of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. Our faith justifies us, because it connects us with Christ's saving work and so enables God to credit it to our account. Then, once justified by faith, not works, we immediately begin a lifelong process of sanctification, which requires that we do God's will as revealed to us in his moral law.

 

 

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