Mark 6:1-6 – Justification by Faith

We continue our lectio with some teaching on the previous few verses of Mark’s Gospel…

MARK 6:1-6


We can’t ignore the fact that, at the very centre of these past couple of chapters in our lectio, the subject of faith has been held up for our consideration.  It has been absolutely essential in all these stories – an increase in faith, the testing of faith, the growth in faith, the witness of faith, the lack of faith.  Throughout Sacred Scripture and our Christian tradition the relationship between faith and justification – being put back into right relationship with God – has been at the forefront of teaching and belief.  Indeed, this very question was the one that fuelled the rebellion of the Protestant Reformers in the 16th century and led to the divisions which have persisted to our own day.  So, to accompany our lectio divina of this passage, and to expand our reflection on the place of faith, grace and justification we are going to spend a little time gathering together some of the witness of Scripture and the Church on this matter.

The question around justification is presented for us by St Paul above all in his Letter to the Romans.  We remember that, as a Jew, Paul is very much aware of the justification which the whole of Scripture attributes to God’s saving action toward humankind, and that the “just person” is one who, by the witness of faith, is considered to be in right relationship with God.  Justice and righteousness are linked, and often synonymous.

Paul spends the most of chapters 2 – 7 expounding his teaching on the relationship between justification and salvation, and sin and grace.  It merits a close reading.  Essentially, Paul sets out the core of his argument at 3:21 and following.  We recall that for Paul what we call “justice” means “being made just or righteous in our relationship with God”:

“God’s justice that was made known through the Law and the Prophets has now been revealed outside the Law, since it is the same justice of God that comes through faith to everyone, Jew and pagan alike, who believes in Jesus Christ.  Both Jew and pagan sinned and forfeited God’s glory (sometimes translated as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”), and both are justified through the free gift of his grace by being redeemed in Christ Jesus who was appointed by God to sacrifice his life so as to win reconciliation through faith.  In this way God makes his justification known; first for the past, when sins went unpunished because he held his hand, then, for the present age, by showing positively that he is just, and that he justifies everyone who believes in Jesus.

… a person is justified by faith and not by doing something the Law tells him to do”

Romans 3:21-31

This passage is heaped with vital teaching that we need to note if we are to begin to get a hold on the doctrine of justification.  Firstly, God is the one who justifies, and this justification is available to all.  Secondly, all mankind has fallen short of holiness by sin.  Then, it is belief in Jesus Christ which is the grounds for justification, and this has been won for us by Christ’s sacrifice of his life on the Cross.  Justification is a free gift which God gives us, and therefore is not won by anything we do, having been merited for us by Christ.

Indeed, it might be said that this sums up the central teaching on justification.  

Paul then goes on to point to one great example of the faith of one man which was considered to be grounds for his justification.  Paul is using the example of Abraham, the patriarch – since that is who we are talking about here – as an analogy for the faith that a Christian must have as well.  We recall again that justification means being re-established in right relationship with God, hence the validity of the example of Abraham – God justifies Abraham, restores the fullness of his relationship with him, on the basis of the witness and reality of Abraham’s faith in the God who makes and keeps his promises:

“Scripture says, Abraham put his faith in God, and this faith was considered as justifying him” 

Romans 4:3 – Paul is quoting Genesis 15:6 here

Paul is at pains to show that Abraham’s faith didn’t make God justify him; and God didn’t justify Abraham as a result of Abraham’s faith.  No, he freely chooses to do this in response to the faith that Abraham places in him.  And that faith itself, as we shall see, is already a gracious gift from God, but one which, as with all gifts, must be received, recognised and worked with.

Leaving Sacred Scripture for a moment, we need to look at how the Church responds to the teaching of Scripture.  We don’t need to remind ourselves that the Church regards Sacred Scripture as the most important source for revelation of God’s law for us.  In Scripture God reveals himself and the Word of salvation which he wishes us to hear and receive.  It is principally dealing with these texts that the Council of Trent, which met over the course of several decades in the 16th century in response to the opposition to Church teaching and practice by the Reformers, was able to restate authoritatively her perennial teaching on justification.  The doctrine was articulated in a decree which is extraordinary for its brevity and clarity.  Promulgated on 13th January, 1547, the Decree on Justification also demands our slow and considerate study. 

In short, the decree outlines the extraordinary abundance of God’s freely given mercy toward the sinful human person; the once and for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross by which our justification is merited; the freedom of the human person to respond in faith to the invitation which the grace of justification makes; the fact that the human person who responds does so in faith and by faith thus living out justification in hope and charity, which are also infused in the person by justification; this charity expresses itself in good works, which indicate the person’s cooperation with the grace given; that the person does not merit by anything done on their part this justification, but that it is solely the result of Christ’s death; that our sins lessen the effects of the grace of justification and so confession of sins and sacramental absolution are a necessary part of the lives of those who wish to continue in the grace of justification; that baptism, a true regeneration by water and the Holy Spirit, gains us participation in Christ’s death and so justifies.

Let’s consider a few texts from the decree which will establish for us the main lines of the teaching: 

“By which words, a description of the justification of the impious is indicated – as being a translation (ie that we are moved by grace from one state to another) from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” 

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter IV

The decree contrasts the state of original sin, into which we are all born, and the state of our redemption by Christ Jesus.  It emphasises at this stage the centrality of baptism – being born again of water and the Holy Spirit – which affects this transformation and cleansing from sin.

“The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight.” 

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter V

The decree teaches clearly that justification comes about by God’s freely given grace, and is wholly unmerited on our part, ie, we don’t do anything to deserve it, but rather, Christ, by his death on the cross, merits it for us.  But at this stage the decree also notes that the person may freely respond, by grace, to the justification offered, and so accept it and cooperate with it.  This is a central point for us – the freedom which the human person possesses by dint of the fact that we are created in God’s image and likeness is expressed by our free cooperation with grace.  This doesn’t justify us – but it does show us responding to the grace of justification.

“…. Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.” 

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter VII

A very clear and lucid statement of what justification is: not only the forgiveness of sins, but the sanctification and renewal of the inner person – this is the entire person put into right relationship with God through conformity to Christ.

The decree then goes on to list and explain the causes of justification, using categories drawn from Scholastic philosophy – this is important above all, since it affirms again that the person cannot be and is not a cause of their own justification, nor is anything they do to be held as a cause of justification:

“Of this justification the causes are these: 

  • the final cause (ie the end towards which justification is directed) indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; 
  • the efficient cause (ie that which makes justification happen) is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; 
  • the meritorious cause (emphasizing that Christ himself merits our justification entirely for us) is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; 
  • the instrumental cause (by which justification happens in the first place, taking away the stain of original sin) is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; – 
  • lastly, the alone formal cause (which is the origin of justification and gives justification its proper form) is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He makes us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Spirit distributes to everyone as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation.” 

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter VII

These paragraphs are very clear in setting out what justification is, how it comes about, what its purpose is, and the instrument by which we gain it, initially.

One of the most important aspects of justification in Catholic teaching is its relationship with what are called “good works” – the works which we perform as part and parcel of our Christian living and which have their origin in charity, which has its origin in faith.  So,the decree makes the point that these good works, which we are bound to perform as a sign of our justification and as a further cooperation with the grace of justification, arise from the charity which is given to us as a result of the grace of faith:

“… when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once, faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless.” 

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter VII

And we are reminded that justification is a dynamic, living grace, which increases within us by our faith and good works:

“… they (the justified),  through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified.”

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter X

The decree addresses the situation of the vast majority of believers who, through sin, lose the grace of justification, and who have it restored through the Sacrament of Penance and absolution:

“As regards those who, by sin, have fallen from the received grace of justification, they may be again justified, when, God exciting them, through the sacrament of Penance they shall have attained to the recovery, by the merit of Christ, of the grace lost: for this manner of justification is of the fallen the reparation: which the holy Fathers have aptly called a second plank after the shipwreck of grace lost. For, on behalf of those who fall into sins after baptism, Christ Jesus instituted the sacrament of Penance” 

Council of Trent Decree on Justification, Chapter XIV

The dispute over justification between the churches has rumbled on for well nigh 500 years, since the rift created by the Reformers.  That said, enormous progress has been made, over the past 50 years especially, to show that there has been much which is agreed on between the churches with regards to teaching on justification.  So it was that, after a number of patient and open encounters, the World Federation of Lutheran Churches and the Catholic Church were able to issue a Joint Declaration on Justification in October 1999.  The declaration focuses particularly on those areas of belief and doctrine which are shared – there are, obviously, still some aspects where difference remains.  That having been said, the declaration itself bears witness to a common understanding and shared faith in God’s justification of the sinner through the death of Christ. 

“The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.

Our Declaration is not a new, independent presentation alongside the dialogue reports and documents to date, let alone a replacement of them. Rather, as the appendix of sources shows, it makes repeated reference to them and their arguments.

Like the dialogues themselves, this Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that in overcoming the earlier controversial questions and doctrinal condemnations, the churches neither take the condemnations lightly nor do they disavow their own past. On the contrary, this Declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights. Developments have taken place which not only make possible, but also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and condemnations and see them in a new light.” 

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) Preamble

The full declaration may be read here: Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.

And showing how this fundamental shared understanding has touched the life and praxis of other Christians, broad welcome has been expressed by other ecclesial communities over the past 20 years, including Anglicans: Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists, Reformed and Anglicans “drawn into deeper communion”.

Above all, in our lectio, we turn again to the Word of God, in faith, reading our hearts through this matter of justification, and our study of and reflection on the question.  Arising out of these few paragraphs, we might ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. How do I reflect now on the relationship between my own gift of faith and the justification which God offers me as a free gift out of his super-abundant mercy?
  2. How do I allow the practice of hope and charity to flow from my reception of faith?
  3. In what way can I see the good works which I perform as a cooperation with God’s grace in my life?
  4. Do I still see sin in my life as a reality which diminishes the grace of justification, and can I begin the journey towards confession and absolution again?
  5. Have I dismissed the Sacrament of Reconciliation as inconsequential and unnecessary for me in restoring the life of grace? 
  6. The restoration of the grace of justification in my life is to be “born again”.  Can I read chapter 3 of John’s Gospel now in this light?

-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-

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