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St. Paul is one of the most important theologians in the Church. His writings, which have been around for centuries, continue to guide believers, shape the direction of the Church, and inspire skeptics. You can find just about every type of writing in Paul’s letters, from precise statements of doctrine and passionate arguments about pastoral issues to soaring hymns of praise and intimate glimpses into his own heart. But as varied as his writings are, everything Paul wrote about grew out of his dramatic encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. Paul, the onetime persecutor of the Church, became a dedicated apostle of Christ, and there was no turning back.
This month, we want to take a look at the message that Paul proclaimed, and to do that, we are going to focus on three key teachings: the miracle of justification, the process of sanctification, and the hope of glorification. We can see these teachings in virtually every letter that Paul wrote, but it’s in his masterpiece—his Letter to the Romans—that Paul explains them in the most depth. Paul believed that as we come to understand these teachings, we will experience God’s love more deeply, and we will become more like Christ.
These are awesome promises! So let’s get right to it. Let’s begin with Paul’s teaching on justification.
All Have Sinned. Imagine that you have committed a horrible crime. Maybe you killed someone or blew up a building. You have been arrested, so you hire a lawyer. But he advises you to plead guilty and hope for a reduced sentence. Both he and the district attorney know that you are guilty, so there really is no other option.
This is how Paul described our situation. We are all sinners. We are all guilty. Our offense is serious, and the evidence against us is overwhelmingly clear. We cannot make up for the ways we have disobeyed God or the sins we have committed against each other or the damage we have done to this earth. Quoting from the Psalms, St. Paul tells us, “There is no one just, not one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have gone astray” (Romans 3:10-12).
It’s a pretty grim description of our situation, but just a brief look at the newspaper—as well as a quick look into our own hearts—will convince us that it’s close to the mark. When we consider how holy and pure and perfect God is, our situation seems all the worse. There is no way any of us could stand in his presence.
A Merciful Verdict. The good news of the gospel tells us that God did not leave us in this dire predicament. He sent his Son into the world to save us from ourselves. By dying on the cross, Jesus released us from the hold sin had over us. He took upon himself the consequences of our sin; he redeemed us by becoming sin for us and by nailing our sin to the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:14). And by dying and rising for us, Jesus has justified us before God and each other.
Jesus’ death brought about something like a legal acquittal for us. This justification isn’t the result of our efforts to justify ourselves. It comes as we accept by faith the free gift of redemption that Jesus is offering us. We can’t produce it. We can’t merit it. All we can do is receive it—humbly and gratefully.
Now let’s go back to the story about your having committed a horrible crime. You are now appearing in court, and following your lawyer’s advice, you plead guilty before the judge. Your body is tense as you wait to hear your sentence. “How long will I be in jail?” you ask. “Will I ever get out? Who will take care of my family?”
Just then, something strange happens. The judge lays down his gavel, takes off his robe, and comes down off the bench. He walks over to you, embraces you, and says, “Don’t worry; you don’t have to go to jail. Just hearing you confess is enough for me. Just knowing that you’re going to try to change your life is all I needed. You are free to go; I’ll take care of your sentence.”
Imagine the sense of relief, gratitude, and joy that you would feel at that moment. That’s only a small sample of how it feels to know that God has removed our guilt and opened heaven for us.
Generosity and Love. Recently, one of our coworkers here at The Word Among Us told us another story that illustrates the love that moved God to justify us. He was at Mass a couple of weeks ago when his pastor made an announcement after Communion. “It has come to my attention,” he said, “that there are a few families who want to send their children to our parish school, but they can’t afford the tuition. I don’t like turning anyone away, so I’m going to set up a scholarship fund and ask everyone here to contribute. Let’s take care of each other!”
In response, everyone who could made a donation or committed to making ongoing contributions. The scholarships were fully funded, and all of the needy families were welcomed into the school. In a similar way, Paul tells us that because of God’s generosity and his love for us, Jesus has given us a share in his righteousness. He has done what we could not do on our own, and now we can go on to live holy lives.
Confess and Believe. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul gave us a simple formula to help us understand what it means to be justified by Jesus’ cross: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” he said, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9). Actually, these aren’t Paul’s words. They probably came from a very early creed that the first Christians recited when they gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.
This simple creed tells us that faith in Jesus is at the heart of our salvation and our entry into heaven. Whether we are good and responsible people, or whether we are trapped in all kinds of sin, salvation is available to all of us. It’s only a matter of believing in Jesus’ death and resurrection, being baptized into his name, and being willing to confess that Jesus is the Lord.
It’s similar to what happened with the good soldier Cornelius. Peter came and proclaimed Christ to him, and he accepted the message wholeheartedly. “While Peter was still speaking these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.” Seeing them filled with the Spirit, Peter asked, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” (Acts 10:44, 47). The obvious answer was no, so they were all baptized.
Each Sunday, when we recite the Nicene Creed, we are confessing with our lips and believing in our hearts that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. That’s why we say, “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven” and “For our sake he was crucified.” For us. For me. Yes, Lord, I believe.
When we recite the Creed, we are telling the Father that we accept the gift of salvation that he has freely given us. By repeating this proclamation every Sunday at Mass, we are also proclaiming that we want this gift to become the foundation of our lives. It’s not a “once and done” proclamation, but an ongoing decision to live as people who have become children of God.
Reciting Paul’s simple confession of faith or the Nicene Creed is very similar to the words husbands and wives say on a regular basis: “I love you.” They never get tired of saying it to each other. Their verbal expressions confirm an inner belief. We all know how meaningful these words are to each spouse—to the one who says them and the one who receives them. That’s how meaningful the Creed can be for us. May we never tire of saying, “Jesus, I love you because you have saved me.”
Your Faith Has Saved You. The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus telling people, “Your faith has saved you” (Matthew 9:22; Mark 10:52; Luke 7:50; 17:19). In essence he was saying that they were saved, not by what they did, but by their belief in his power to heal, to redeem, and to forgive.
Following Jesus’ teaching, Paul told the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (2:8). Grace has saved us. What a magnificent gift our Father has given to us! He will stop at nothing—not even the death of his Son—in his goal to draw us to him and fill us with his love!