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A CHRISTIAN IS JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, NOT BY WORKS
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Monday, 29th Week of the Year, October 19, 2015
Rom. 4:19-25, Luke 1, Luke 12:13-21


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"No distrust made him [Abraham] waiver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.' But the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,' were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 4:20-24).


St. Paul is still reflecting here on the faith of Abraham by which he was justified. He says "his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness'" (Rom. 4:22; Gen. 15:6). Because Abraham believed, God reckoned him as righteous. The whole point that St. Paul is trying to make in this chapter and in the whole epistle to the Romans is that justification comes to us by faith, not by works. St. Paul uses Abraham as an example of this for us, for the same thing will happen to us.


This is where most of the Jews of St. Paul's time went astray and were lost. They thought that they had to work to be justified. That is, they thought that by doing the works of the law, by doing good works in general, they would achieve justification before God and become just and righteous in his sight. This was their great error. It is also the great error of many people today. The point that St. Paul makes again and again is that faith, not works, is the way to be justified. If we think justification is something that we have to achieve before God by our good works, we will not be justified any more than the Jews who thought that way were justified.


Why did Israel fail to obtain righteousness? St. Paul says that it is "because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works" (Rom. 9:32). How many people today make the same mistake? What St. Paul says about most of the Jews of his time is also true of many people today, namely, "They have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness" (Rom. 10:2-3).


The Jews did not come to Christ to be made righteous by his death for their sins, through faith in him. They preferred to do it themselves, to earn and pay their own way and appear before God with their own good works and even earn the forgiveness of their sins by their own good works and acts of reparation, and so not just receive justification as a free gift, but as something they paid for themselves and earned by their own hard work and merits. This is why they and all who think like them fail to obtain righteousness. In short, "Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified" (Rom. 10:4). The law as a way of justification ends with Christ, who is the new way of justification through faith, because of his reparation-making death on the cross.


The law was the old way of justification of the Old Testament. But now a new way of justification has been clearly revealed by Christ, although it was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, starting from the very beginning with Abraham, as St. Paul points out. The new way is by faith, not by works. Abraham's "faith was ‘reckoned to him as righteousness'" (Rom. 4:22). And this is true for us too. The same thing will happen to us if we seek justification as Abraham did by faith, not by works, or as St. Paul says here, "But the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,' were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 4:23-24). Through and because of his faith, not because of his works, God declared Abraham righteous.


This only becomes understandable with the coming of Christ, when we learn that it is his suffering and death on the cross in reparation for our sins that justifies us, when we put our faith in him, for our faith allows the merits of his reparation-making death to be applied to us. That is why it is our faith, not our works, that justify us. It is because it is Christ's work of reparation for our sins on the cross, not our good works that justify us before God. Our faith enables this to happen.


Israel's great error was not recognizing this and rejecting Christ. Let us not make the same mistake. It is our faith, not our works that justify us. "Christ is the end [or goal] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes in Him" (Rom. 10:4 NKJV). That is, once Christ has come, all who believe in him will be made righteous, because of their faith in him.

 

The law was our custodian until Christ came. Now all are justified not by the law but by faith in Christ, because of his death on the cross. "Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian" (Gal. 3:24-25). We are no longer under the law for our justification. Rather, we are now under faith for our justification.


So we now live a life of faith and follow God's will according to his moral law, not in order to be justified, as so many Jews did, but because we are justified. Our own attempt to do God's will will always be imperfect, and so will never justify us before God. The way of the moral and ceremonial law as the way of justification was only for a time to show Israel their need for a Savior. The new and true Israel (Christians) accepted Christ, not the law, as the way of justification by faith, not by works. Israel, in rejecting Christ, failed to obtain righteousness, "because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works" (Rom. 9:32). Let us not make the same mistake.


Works, then, come in after justification is already attained through faith apart from works. A life of good works is the way a truly justified person lives. He dedicates himself completely to God in a life of good works, renouncing the worldliness of the world to live for God alone with all the love of his heart. He seeks to preach the gospel of salvation by faith through Christ's death to all he can reach. Such a life is the fruit of justification by faith. A life of good works is the fruit of the righteousness that comes by faith, not by works.

 

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