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ONCE JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, NOT BY WORKS, WE MUST NOW BE SANCTIFIED BY OUR GOOD WORKS
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Thursday, 29th Week of the Year, October 26, 2017
Romans 6:19-23, Psalm 1, Luke 12:49-53


Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

 

"I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification" (Romans 6:19).


St. Paul's letter to the Romans is concerned about two major issues: justification and sanctification. The main focus of chapters one through five has been justification. Now in chapter six and eight the focus is on sanctification. Justification, for St. Paul, is a work of Christ alone in us, a saving work that God does in us because of Christ's atoning death on the cross, where he made full and just reparation and satisfaction before the Father for all our sins. Our part in justification, for St. Paul, is our faith, which means that we accept God's free gift of justification which Christ earns and merits for us by his atoning, reparation-making death on the cross for our sins.


But this atonement is not automatic, according to St. Paul. It requires our faith, which is our acceptance of it. God even gives us the gift of faith, but he does not force it on us or give it to us in a merely automatic way. It is up to us to personally freely make an act of our will to either accept or reject God's free offer of justification through the death of Christ on the cross. If we accept Christ and believe in him and in his redeeming, propitiating sacrifice on the cross, God declares and regards us ungodly sinners as righteous, as justified, and if God declares us righteous, we are righteous indeed, with God's own resplendent righteousness shining in us.


This is a marvelous event in our life, and it occurs many times all through our life, especially whenever we sin - even in very small sins - and repent, particularly within the sacrament of reconciliation (John 20:22-23). We then receive the forgiveness of our sins and God once again reckons our faith to us as righteousness and makes us once again resplendent in his sight.


Part of our act of faith is our repentance. To be justified, we must genuinely repent of our sins and have a firm purpose of amending our life. God will only forgive us our sins and justify us if we firmly intend and resolve to abandon our sins. A person who intends to continue living in a gravely sinful way, for example, a life of adultery or fornication, cannot be forgiven or justified until he genuinely repents and fully intends to stop sinning and to abandon his gravely sinful way of life.


So what is involved in justification is first of all Christ's sacrifice on the cross that pays to God the Father our debt of punishment for our sins for us. And we remember that it was the Father who took the initiative to send him into the world to do this for us (Romans 8:32). Secondly my faith is involved, which is my extended empty hand that receives the free gift of God's justification, his declaring me, an ungodly sinner, to be righteous.


What is not involved in justification, St. Paul constantly tells us, is our works. Justification is God's work only, not at all my work. My only part in it is my faith in Christ and in his justifying work on the cross. What this means is that human effort has nothing to do with justification. I do not in any way earn or merit my justification by living a good moral life or by my good works and good behavior in keeping God's moral law, for "by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (Romans 3:20 NKJV).


St. Paul goes out of his way to repeatedly make this point that we are justified by faith, not by our human good works. He says: "For 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). It is God "who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago" (2 Timothy 1:9). God "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" (Titus 3:5). 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). "We hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Romans 3:28). Many more quotations could be given, but these will suffice.


When St. Paul says, "By the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight" (Romans 3:20 NKJV), by "deeds of the law" or by "works of the law" he means by works of the Torah, the Mosaic Law, which contains the moral law of God (the Ten Commandments) as well as the Jewish ceremonial laws of circumcision, diet, sacrifices, and Israel's national laws. According to St. Paul, no human works at all will justify us, neither works according to the ceremonial nor works according to the moral law. Only Christ's death earns and merits our justification, and only our faith receives it. It is by faith, not by works of our own of any kind, either ceremonial or moral, that are we justified, as St. Paul goes out of his way again and again to make perfectly clear.


But once we are justified, what do we then do with the rest of our life? Besides seeking to be justified again and again whenever we sin and thereby become alienated from God and depressed by our alienation, we also engage ourselves in a life-long process of sanctification. Here is where our good moral life and good works come in that are so important to the Christian life. This is what St. Paul is talking about today in Romans six. Sanctification can only begin after we are justified. Justification enables us to become gradually sanctified.


By our good works we grow in our loving relationship with God and with our neighbor. We try to live a good moral life and try always to do God's will, as he has revealed it to us in his moral law (the Ten Commandments) and in the two great commandments and other moral teachings of Jesus and of the Bible. The grace of justification that reconciles us with God and overcomes our alienation from him enables us as a new creature in Christ, a "new man" (Ephesians 4:22-24) to now keep God's moral law.


We are now to use our body to live righteously for our sanctification, just as we formerly used it for evil purposes, which brought us shame and death. But now our good actions bring us sanctification and eternal life. "For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification" (Romans 6:19). "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life" (Romans 6:22).


Since concupiscence still resides in us, our Christian life will be a struggle against concupiscence, a struggle against the desires of the flesh, so that we will try to use our minds, thoughts, and bodies to serve and honor God and to serve our neighbor. This is a life-long struggle and learning process, a life-long process of growth in holiness by doing good works and by living a good moral life.


In our justification, Christ's death on the cross, through our faith, has made us a new creation, a "new man." That is a fact. But now St. Paul instructs us to be in practice what we now are in fact. The fact that we are "new men" gives us the ability to actually live as "new men," but to do so requires effort on our part. You have to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12). "Conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile" (1 Peter 1:17).


This means that we are to work hard at living a good life. We are to live for God, to love him with all our heart (Mark 12:30), to lose our life in this world for his sake in order to find our life (Mark 8:35), to die to the world and the world to us in order to live for Christ with an undivided heart (Galatians 6:14), and we are to avoid worldly living that makes us forget God (1 John 2:15).


Some try to point to the letter of St. James as contradicting St. Paul's doctrine of justification by faith, not by works, for St. James says, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). But Scripture cannot contradict itself, for it is inspired by the divine author who does not contradict himself.


St. James and St. Paul both use the same words, "justification" and "justify," but they use them in different ways with different meanings, just as British and Americans both use the same word, "football," but they don't mean the same game by the same word "football." British football is a completely different game with totally different rules from American football. In the same way St. James and St. Paul mean quite different things by the same words "justify" and "justification."


St. James means by justification the whole Christian life, combining justification with sanctification, and so, of course, he says that we need good works to be justified, in his sense. But St. Paul uses the word "justify" and "justification" in a much more precise and narrow sense of only the act of God in declaring and making us righteous and forgiving our sins, which excludes all human works and only requires faith on our part. Our works then come in for our sanctification, not for God's act of justifying us.

 

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