We continue to celebrate the Great Feast of the Elevation of the Cross of our Savior, which began this past Monday and will be completed tomorrow. We speak and we sing and pray on the theme of the Cross throughout our lives, but each year we are given these eight days to meditate especially on the Cross of Jesus.
Today on the Sunday after the feast day itself we read from the second chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. In this epistle Paul is mainly concerned with the distorted view that some people have of what the relationship is between the Jewish law of the Old Covenant and the faith of Christ in the New Covenant. The question is, “Do Gentiles have to become Jews and follow the law of Moses in order to be Christians?” And so this brief passage is another iteration of that theme.
He speaks here of justification which is a concept that has been much debated over the centuries of Christian history and given several very different interpretations; and most interpretations of this doctrine go very much to the heart of the Gospel. Paul says that Christians are justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the law. That much is clear. The question is what he means by justification and what that has to do with the Gospel.
We tend to think of gospel these days as a Christian idea, but it is actually a pre-Christian, Roman concept. In Greek gospel is euangelion, a word from which we gets words like evangelism. Its literal meaning is “good news” but for Romans it had a technical meaning. The euangelion was proclaimed to the Empire not only at the birth of the heir to the throne but also when a new emperor was proclaimed by virtue of conquest. When the new ruler was revealed his euangelion would be proclaimed. And what was it? It was an announcement of his conquest of his enemies followed by his expectations of his new subjects. This was his covenant with them. He would be a good ruler and they would properly be part of his kingdom if they did what he expected of them. That’s what the gospel was for Romans. So when the writers of the Christian Gospels used the word euangelion they were using a word everyone knew and they very much intended to invoke its political meaning. So what does that have to do with justification?
In the context of the gospel announced with the coming of the conquering king Jesus Christ, to be justified is to be in a right relationship within the covenant that has now been established. To be justified within the covenant you have to do what the covenant says you have to do; and as Paul says here it means faith in Christ. Now where people go theologically off the rails here is in reducing that justification that comes from faith in Christ to a legal model that doesn’t really develop until the Middle Ages in the West. In that model justification is about satisfying certain requirements in order to have a good legal standing. Our modern courts largely still use this model which is why even if you have inarguably commited a crime you can be released to your freedom if some technicality can be raised about the evidence for instance. In this view of justification what Jesus did on the Cross essentially excuses us for the crimes we’ve commited against God: we’re guilty but we get to go free anyway. But this is not justification according to the Gospel — the euangelion of the New Covenant. Faith in Christ does not satisfy a technicality so that God can let us go free even though we have Hell coming to us for our sins.
What faith in Christ does is grant us participation in him, which actually changes us. We become actually righteous, not just technically righteous. Participation in Christ is what makes us justified and what therefore brings us into the New Covenant and keeps us part of the New Covenant. Now this may be a subtle point for some of us, but I’d like to underline it. Paul is juxtaposing faith in Christ with the works of the Jewish law. He says that the works of the law don’t justify us, that is, they do not get us into the right place in the New Covenant. They never could do that; they just pointed to the New Covenant. Faith in Christ gets us there not because we just believe. The demons after all believe. They know the truth, Satan himself agrees, but they do not participate in Christ. Justification in the New Covenant requires faith which means faithfulness which means participation. We have to participate in Christ if we are going to be proper citizens in the new kingdom which has been announced with this euangelion (this new gospel of the kingdom): this new announcement by the conquering king that he has vanquished his enemies, the demons, and finally death itself, and that he is inaugurating a new kingdom, and he has expectations of us who would be part of that New Covenant kingdom.
Participation in Christ through our faith is not just believing, as we said before; the demons believe. Faith does mean believing but that is just the beginning; it means being engaged. If we’re going to be part of this kingdom, this New Covenant, then we have to participate in every way. How do we do that? We begin with Baptism which includes repentance of sins, but we keep repenting and we keep ourselves from immorality. Our belief in Christ doesn’t compensate for living sinfully. We have to refrain from sin and repent when we do sin, and since we sin every day we have to keep repenting. And after Baptism and Chrismation we also participate in the Sacraments — all of them that we can, not just Holy Communion. The average Orthodox Christian should also be coming to Confession regularly as well as receiving Holy Unction when he is sick. And when he gets married he gets married in church, not somewhere else. We also participate in Christ by giving what we have to him. We give him our minds by education. We give him our possessions by almsgiving and by tithing. We give him our bodies by laboring in the church, but also laboring for those who need it. And we give him our bodies by fasting. We give him our hearts by our prayer both here in church and at home, and we give him our time by this prayer as well. These are all ways that we participate faithfully in Christ.
These things are not the works of the law that Paul has in mind which do not justify us. Now they can in a sense turn into the unjustifying works of the law if we do them without putting our hearts into them. And we also have to keep doing them; faithfulness does not mean checking off a box somewhere, even a “box” that you believe or that you are baptized or that you had a spiritual experience, that you did certain things and now expect that God has justified you. That’s not justification. It has to be ongoing. This is what was meant when Jesus says that you have to endure to the end to be saved, or when Paul says that we have to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. This is about faithfulness. All this helps us to make sense of what Paul means when he says that we are justified by faith in Christ, not by the works of the law. It is about participation in Christ, which puts us into the New Covenant and keeps us in it. And since it is about participation in Christ that is why Paul can now say, “I have been crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” May that be true also for each of us and for all of us.