Message of the week: Justified and free
Everyone wants to be "approved." Everyone wants to be accepted by a family of peers. The Bible also translates this approval with words like "justified." In typing, I "justify my margins," meaning that everything is even and lined up. As important as it is to be approved and justified with people, it's even more important to be approved and justified by God.
To be even and lined up with God means my account has been settled. I have no outstanding debts that I owe. I must be a pretty incredible person to be good enough for God.
Actually, even though I do try to be a good person, it's God's free gift of forgiveness through Jesus Christ that gets me right with God. Jesus "picked up the marker" that the Bible calls my sin. I am free of my debt.
I can breath a sigh of relief because I am "heaven bound." When the judgment comes, I will have God's seal of approval. As a good Lutheran, I can say that I am "justified by faith" by the gracious work of Christ. But approved, justified, and freed for what?
In the Bible, other than for those at the doorstep of death, salvation's purpose was not chiefly to get me to Heaven. On this Reformation Sunday, we remember the protests 500 years ago against the Catholic Church's attempt to sell the forgiveness that was supposed to get people into Heaven. They were right in asserting that salvation was free, but it was just the door to the kingdom of God.
In Isaiah 5 and Matthew 25, we are reminded that the kingdom of God is also our relationship to God's creation and God's people. The primary focus of Christ's ministry was the kingdom of God, not our individual justification by faith.
In Amos 5, we learn that beautiful worship, right liturgies, music at its best, inspiring preaching are all regarded as worthless — useless when the people were not doing justice and righteousness. "Let justice and righteousness roll down like water." That's the bottom line for Israel and the church.
Jesus' death on the cross was in order to bring the kingdom of God to this world. It's following in Jesus' footsteps, not just getting started.
We are more worried about getting ourselves to heaven — preparing for the next life — waiting for the final victory, than about loving our neighbor or taking care of the world we call our home. We have pushed so hard to insist that our works will not save us, there is little emphasis on the call to follow.
A distorted emphasis on justification by faith has led to a privatistic religion. Many people see salvation as primarily "me and Jesus," failing to realize that when you invite Jesus into your life, he never comes alone. He always brings your neighbor with him.
Nearly two thirds of church members are absent from worship every Sunday. Why? Many people today see the church as a place where we can slip in, slip out, without any commitment to the Christian community. After all, they are justified by their individual faith. My faith is between me and God. I can worship God as well or better out in nature. I don't need the church. I wonder if our use of justification by faith as a criterion to see if someone is truly gospel-centered is not partly to blame for this self-centeredness in our faith.
When we preach to self-centered people, we don't want to send them home feeling guilty or upset or they may transfer to another church down the street. So we have leaned over backward to avoid Jesus' words with moral imperatives. We don't talk about the weeping and gnashing of teeth like Jesus did.
Is there any good news? Yes, there is. The good news is that God has not given up on us. The call to follow Jesus is still heard. Jesus comes to us today as he came to the Jews who believed in him, and he says, "If you continue in my Word, then you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free."
We are justified by faith. That's God's business. Now we are called to continue in God's way by laying down our lives for others. That's our business.