Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. (Romans 4: 7-8, after Psalm 32:1)
A favourite theme of the Reformers is the promotion of ‘justification by faith’ which they draw primarily from the work of St. Paul. And that is no bad thing. It is an integral part of the message of salvation in the New Testament.
‘Justification’ is synonymous with ‘righteousness’, but it is not about ethics as is sometimes supposed. We are not made perfect through God’s act of forgiveness. We are called to perfection and by the grace of God will attain it albeit in another realm, but for now we remain a pretty miserable lot – as no doubt we reminded ourselves earlier in Lent. Justification is more about relationships. Through God’s forgiveness things are put right between ourselves and God and between ourselves and other people. Proper relationships are restored to the state that God intended. Those who are forgiven are able once again to put their trust in God and so become recipients of his grace. It would be fair to say that justification is the first step on the road to salvation. Once the slate is wiped clean we are able to begin again.
Over the course of Holy Week we spend a lot of time reminding ourselves of things that we already know. There may be a few surprises along the way, but for the most part we hear familiar stories which we have long understood. We remind ourselves partly because human nature is frequently forgetful and partly because we are busy perpetuating the Church’s proclamation of faith as it is expressed in the liturgy. We tell it and we tell it again – and sometimes it sinks in! So as we remind ourselves about the events which ultimately lead to our salvation it is worth spelling out the two complementary aspects of our justification.
The word ‘justification’ has a negative sense. St. Paul is fond of using legal terminology to describe how we find ourselves forgiven. Nobody is more aware than St. Paul of his own sin. He knows his failings and weaknesses; he carries the painful remembrance of the death of St. Stephen the first martyr and the subsequent persecution for which he, Paul, had been responsible. There are the specific sins of which he is culpable and also that aspect of failure and inadequacy which is common to humanity.
For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. (Romans 7: 19)
The word ‘justification’ also has a positive sense. God’s great act of forgiveness makes us the people we are – people who understand what it is to be forgiven, but also people who are learning what it is to love. There is a connection. Remember what Jesus said about the woman of ill-repute who anointed him:
Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. (Luke 7: 47)
I sometimes wonder whether those who live nice lives (or think they do) ever really learn to love the Lord. If you wonder why Lent is so important and why it is so beneficial raking over our sins then this is the reason. We need to know of our debt and just how much we have been forgiven – and then we need to learn how to love. Once we begin to love we also begin to live and taste the freedom and opportunity which are part of the Kingdom of God.
As you read and hear the stories of Holy Week and are reminded again of God’s love and forgiveness, spend a moment reflecting on the debt that you owe and resolve to love again.
Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
Palm Sunday 2021