Justification by Grace

My friend and colleague Tom Berg gave a talk during the week about the doctrine of justification by grace. The talk included a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the subject, in which Bonhoeffer explains why the doctrine is not only consistent with community but explains why Christian community is so important.

This is a doctrine that is spoken about far more frequently by my Protestant friends than by my Catholic ones. And today’s first Mass reading, from the Letter of Paul to the Romans, is oft-cited in those discussions. Paul tells us in today’s passage that all have sinned and all “are justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus….For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

I confess that I am not totally comfortable with how the doctrine gets expressed and understood by people.

One the one hand, the idea that our ultimate salvation comes from something outside and greater than us – God – is something I have no quarrel with. That is, one way of understanding the doctrine is that it expresses essentially the message of the first Beatitude, which addresses poverty of spirit: it acknowledges our ultimate dependence on God. Our understanding that we can do nothing on our own, but that everything we are and do is through the grace of God.

On the other hand, justification by faith can too easily be twisted to suggest that all one needs to do is express one’s faith in God and one is golden. And that, it seems to me, ignores the message in today’s Gospel from Matthew. Jesus is quite explicit in telling his disciples that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father.” He goes on to talk about listening to His words AND acting on them.

Faith and words have never struck me as inconsistent. Perhaps one way of expressing that is to say that if one truly has faith, then works will follow. If I have faith in God – if I live with the knowldge of God’s love and grace, then I will naturally do the kinds of things Jesus asks of us in the Gospels, will naturally try to be the hands and feet of Jesus on earth. Undestood that way, works are not a separate requirement for salvation so much as a manifestation of our faith. If, on the other hand, all I do is verbally express my faith, without any change in my behavior, well…then, perhaps my expression of faith is not all that sincere.

That is an understanding of justification by faith I can understand and live by.