10/20/17 First Reading: Romans 4:1-8 – Some thoughts on Justification by Faith

The Reformation leadersNext Tuesday, October 31st, the world will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.  It’s important for us as Catholics to attend to it.

As I understand it, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and scripture scholar, suffered terribly from scruples.  I’ve heard it said he went to confession every day, sometimes for hours.  Neither the Sacrament of Penance nor Eucharist brought him relief from his suffering.

Then, one day, reading from Romans 3:23-28 (or so), the scripture became the ‘two-edged sword’ (letter to the Hebrews) that surgically opened up Luther’s heart to the love and mercy of God.  It transformed him.

since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…  Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith.  For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Today’s reading echoes that same theme:
For what does the Scripture say?  Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.  A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due.  But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness… (Romans 4:2-6)

Here’s a thought based upon over 38 years of hearing confessions.  Many have labored under the illusion (through no fault of their own) that they/we can correct our faults and stop ‘acting out’ by increasing our intentions and applying our will power.  We can succeed by our own efforts.  We secure our place in the driver’s seat and choose how and where to go.

Doesn’t work, does it?

Here’s what I believe Luther rightly points to in human nature, not just in Catholic practice, but the basic human journey.  Like him, once we realize and admit we are unable to control our acting out (in anger, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, lust, and sloth), we can turn to God, get out of the driver’s seat, and surrender our driver’s hat to find the freedom that has terrified us to discover it’s… amazing!

We humans are fearful creatures.  We get in our own way.  We shoot ourselves in the foot continually.  It’s human nature.  Call it concupiscence.  We do have the wherewithal to secure our personal driver’s seat.  However, the way religious principles can be taught encourage that fear.  In this way, good religious people seek to control others.

I have found that the discovery of my own powerlessness over so much in my life leads me to slide out of my driver’s seat… from time to time (!)  And I find it a joy much of the time to surrender every part of me – good and bad – to the care and mercy of Christ.  Less pretense.  Less fear.  More freedom to serve.

Might this be the learning we Catholics can receive from Martin Luther’s experience?  I think so.  Happy 500 years!  –roc,sj

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