The Reformation, the justification by faith and the pursuit of justice


The anniversary of the Reformation

Since 1617, Protestant churches commemorate the Reformation of the sixteenth century on October 31. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546 AD) sent an invitation to the bishop of Mainz, Albrecht von Brandenburg, to meet with him, the university staff, on the basis of 95 statements criticizing the indulgence system of that time and the public, to debate the biblical basis of that practice.

Luther’s criticism against the indulgence system soon produced positive results and he probably did not pay attention to this matter again. He was then able to devote his attention to the deeper theological problems in Roman theology for the rest of his career.

One of the most important themes he worked on was the statements of Paul in Romans 1:17, 3:21–22 and Galatians 3:22 that had to do with justification by faith. This theme, embedded in the larger theme of God’s justice, would become the major point of contention with the Roman Catholic Church.

After nearly five centuries, there is fortunately today, at least among most leading theologians of the various confessional groups, a reasonable degree of consensus on the understanding of the “doctrine of justification”. It is essential that we also regularly pay attention to this theme.

That a person is declared righteous by faith, and not by works and activities, has always been greeted with incomprehension. Not only Jews, for whom obedience to the law is the heart of religion, but also duty-driven people in general, find it difficult to understand the Pauline doctrine of justification. Luther himself complained that when he preached about justification by faith, the people fell asleep, but when he told a story their ears pricked up.

Afrikaans speakers hide their discomfort with this biblical theme by keeping silent about it. However, those who take Scripture seriously through the lens of Reformation theology cannot and must not remain silent on this important theme.

The actuality of the doctrine of justification

All people want to be respected and valued. People want to hear that they are granted a right to exist based on their modest contribution to society. In general, people believe that their work, activities and activities determine their right to be human. Those who are purposefully busy meet the demands of being human, since it is believed that the acting person can rightly be called human.

To be a justified person implies that you have produced works that give your existence the right to be here, among other people.

Photo 3_Luther and his family

However, life is a continuous tribunal. Our being here and our being so are constantly being judged. The search for living spaces where you are not judged will unfortunately not be found, as they do not exist. Avoiding the church spaces does not mean that you will be able to lead a judgement-free existence. The world and the people of the world judge and condemn each and every one, and mercy is but little. Before the tribunals of the world you must constantly justify yourself. It is not only the givenness of your existence that must be justified, but also the way in which you want to give shape to your existence.

The implication of a tribunalized reality is that you must constantly produce works that can ensure your human dignity and acceptability. Ultimately, the burden of self-justification is too heavy to bear and it must be seen that the works of the law, the activities and the constant busyness cannot ensure a happy life. The secret of life, we learn from Luther, is to distinguish between person and works and to leave your person-being to the judgment of the merciful God.

Person and works

Martin Luther, in his Romans Commentary of 1515/-16, reversed Aristotle’s (384 – 322 BC) statement that one becomes a just or respectable person by doing good and right things, by asserting that the a person who is justified can and will probably do good and right things continuously.

Good works, says Luther, do not make someone a good person, but a good person does good works. The “good person” is the person who believes that our sins are forgiven and that we are promised a new, eternal life, thanks to Jesus Christ. Thanks to faith, there is no need to fight for prestige and recognition. This is a gift and must be accepted with gratitude. The freedom from the burden of constant self-justification makes continuous service of fellow human love possible.

The man who is concerned about his own prestige, out of presumptuousness and selfishness, does things that can bring him prestige, while people who are freed from self-obsession, in freedom perform works that can rightly be called service to others. Freedom, the gift that is received and not acquired, changes neighborly service as a hidden program of seeking recognition, to spontaneous service to the neighbor, without selfish ulterior motives (Galatians 5:4–6 and 13).

A person, a person who is made human through faith in Jesus Christ, does not seek to earn prestige through morally good works. Respect, recognition and acceptance are granted by the God of justice to all who pray for it. When this gift is received in gratitude, the struggle for inferiority complexes disappears and human and fellow human life can be lived.

Photo 1_Luther's desk

According to Luther, the core problem of being human is sin. Sin means being self-centered and self-centered. Whether God exists or does not exist does not matter to the sinner, since man and the things that occupy him are sufficient to exist. However, the sinner is permanently trapped in self-judgment. However, the self-judgment is unsatisfactory in the long run, as it is misleading. Either you overestimate your own importance, or you underestimate your own dignity.

The eternal doubt about your right to exist only makes you fall even deeper into yourself. The solution is to look for the reason for your existence “outside yourself, in Christ”. Thanks to Christ’s intercession, God’s judgment on my life is a gracious and merciful judgment. The person who believes is freed from doubt and feelings of inferiority. Those who no longer have to live with the torment of possible unworthiness become free to do things that will be for the good of others. These activities do not determine my being there and being like that, but are at most signs of my gratitude for God’s merciful judgment on my existence.

Receive the justice of God and promote social justice

The belief that God justifies my existence and that I do not need to try to do it myself is the basis of life’s happiness, joy and peace. The just-declared person, the joyful person, should strive for earthly justice. The condition is that earthly justice must remain earthly and not turn into a new attempt at self-justification. Human representations of justice are in any case provisional and therefore always in need of correction.

It is important to realize that ongoing injustice in society creates great frustration, and even hatred develops towards those who have more and those who are more successful. The anger of the “left behind” is expressed in blame assignments and charges of maintaining past injustices. Those who, on the basis of naivety, are convinced that they can be made debtors in a fair way by the court of public opinion and may be kept as such, must then take the heavy burden on their shoulders by constantly justifying themselves again.

The persistent attempt to justify your existence against the charges and conviction of your unequal neighbor soon makes you realize that it is a mistake to surrender yourself to justice-seeking people and their support tribunals in the public media.

The new iniquity exposed

The program of “affirmative employment” of the current government is proof that “affirmative justice” is a political program that produces new injustice. The ANC government’s dream, that its program of “advancement of justice” would morally justify its exercise of power, has brought the opposite to the fore. “Corrective justice” has degenerated into a new dispensation of injustice, which must be stopped as soon as possible so that peace can be restored.

The neo-Marxist ideal of justice of the current government rests on the thought that justice will prevail when the inequalities between social groupings are ended. According to the current state ideology, justice can therefore only flourish between equals. However, the reality is that life is characterized by inequalities. Certain forms of inequality may indeed be changed, but new forms of inequality will always re-emerge.

Those who cannot come to terms with the inequalities of life will always yearn for revenge and murder. The song “kill the Boer, kill the farmer” must be understood against this background. Appropriate justice for this country will therefore have to focus on justice between unequals.

For this there are more than enough impulses to be found in the Bible. In Jeremiah 7:5, for example, “righteousness” amounts to seeing that the law is applied in matters of interest to widows and orphans. The stronger therefore practice justice by seeing that the law is applied when it comes to the interests of those who do not have the means to do so themselves. Churches and non-governmental organizations must simply see to it that the authorities govern as Psalm 72 expects; and this is to do justice to all, including the weak.

Naturally, individuals must also do what is right and leave what is wrong. Amos 2:6-16 mentions some “evils” that still occur; although in a different guise. Amos talks about human trafficking, stepping on the heads of the weaker, father and son taking the same woman, stealing bail money and cutting down young trees. There are therefore numerous directions of action, which extend over a wide area, which can be followed.

The ethical imperative of these (and numerous other) matters goes without saying, but the moral act as such does not ensure justice before God; faith in Jesus Christ takes care of that.