Last week I had some repair work done by a local small business. The owner of the business asked if I was satisfied with the work, and if there was anything else he could do. I responded that I was fully satisfied with the work. Then, he asked, “Are you on the internet?”
I didn’t know how to respond because I wasn’t certain what he was asking. Was he asking if I was browsing during our conversation? Was he asking if I had a personal web page? Was he asking if I used social media?
Haltingly, I tried to determine what he meant. Within a few seconds I realized that he was asking if I had internet access at home. He doesn’t advertise his business anywhere; he relies on referrals from customers. He wanted me to complete a reference form that would be posted to a website that rates and recommends local businesses. The question about the internet was a question about my capacity to write an online review.
The small business owner was a man ten to fifteen years older than I am. The confusion about the meaning of his question was the result of generational differences. To a man of his age the question, “Are you on the internet?” is a question about the degree of one’s technological literacy. To me, the internet is a productivity tool I use daily. The generational differences between the two of us manifested itself as a difference in the use of language.
Language is necessarily limited, and consequently, prone to confusion and misunderstanding. In fact, that preceding statement is an accurate assessment of human existence: human existence is necessarily limited, and prone to confusion and misunderstanding. Some of the limitations and misunderstandings entailed in human existence are unavoidable, and others are of our own making.
We live in a deeply divided society and a deeply divided world. The principal cause of the conflicts between individuals, groups and nations is that we no longer believe in the possibility of anything being true eternally. We’ve settled for little truths, finite truths that are true temporarily. In order to manage the limitations and confusions of human existence, individuals, groups, ethnicities and nationalities take refuge in their private truths, and consequently, ignore and deny the possibility of anything greater than themselves. This destructive dynamic is visible in our local community, our national politics and in international relations. To paraphrase an old joke: if you put two American voters together, you’ll get three opinions about everything.
There is, however, a means to find our way back to eternal truth. There are a few things that are universally true about human existence. The first is that we are finite; being finite, we are also flawed. The second truth is that all of us are always dissatisfied with the finite truth about our lives. The conflicts in our society and our world are entirely the consequence of our limitations and dissatisfactions with ourselves and others. The third truth is that we long for a resolution to our dissatisfaction, but that resolution always eludes our grasp; we can’t attain the one thing we want most of all.
Wouldn’t it be satisfying to be vindicated in our desire for the goodness we can’t grasp? There is only one possibility for encountering the sort of peace that will calm our fears and wants and dissatisfactions; the only possibility for our salvation is to have personal knowledge of eternal good. Unfortunately for us, a personal knowledge of eternal good is an impossibility in this world. This world, and everything in and about it, are finite: there is no room in this world for the infinite . . . unless the Infinite entered completely into our finite world of limitations.
In the Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1) Paul’s definition of justification (salvation), is very simple and old-fashioned. It is so old-fashioned that it might be out of reach for most people today. It means giving over our total allegiance and belief to Jesus as the one who reveals the Infinite to us finite human persons. Paul said that Jesus was sent to give all people an inter-personal knowledge of the Triune God.
The Trinity is often treated as an abstraction, an idea, a concept about God; when this happens, God remains at an infinite distance from us. The Trinity is not an idea; it is God’s personality. God is the Infinite Who creates, redeems and sanctifies. The bridge across that infinite distance between us and God is what St. Paul meant by being “justified by faith.” We are saved, redeemed and at peace when we confess belief in Jesus as the one chosen by God to vindicate our desire for the eternal truth we cannot attain on our own.
This feast of Trinity Sunday might seem like an intellectual exercise, but it is actually an invitation. It is an invitation to come to know God’s personality through Jesus. Many images have been used to depict the Trinity, but none of them are very adequate. More to the point, none of them inspire faith. If you’re looking for something more satisfying than the little, temporary truths of this world or, if you’re looking for a closer relationship with the infinite you know only inchoately, St. Paul’s words can show you the path to take. A personal encounter with infinite good is possible to those who put their full faith in Jesus as revealer of divine truth.
A note on the Scriptures
Over the centuries, various people and groups have offered their interpretations of Paul’s statement, “we have been justified by faith.” (Romans 5:1) Most of those interpretations have introduced a level of abstraction and complexity that is foreign to Paul’s thought. Paul’s statement about justification by faith means precisely what Jesus said about eternal life in John’s Gospel, “Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3)
When Paul wrote, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1), he was referring to concepts from Judaism in antiquity. “Justification,” in the writings of Paul, refers first of all to God’s vindication of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus was the righteous man who was put to death by the unrighteous, and who remained faithful to God to the end. As a consequence, God vindicated Jesus in the Resurrection; the ignominious death that Jesus suffered was the divinely ordained gateway to divine vindication.
The righteousness of Jesus, the innocent and faithful servant of God, is made available to all people. This second meaning of justification is based on Paul’s personal experience that the Divine vindication accorded to Jesus is granted vicariously to those who accept Jesus as God’s Chosen One. For Paul, “justification by faith” was the divinely given alternative to striving for personal holiness by keeping the precepts of the Law of Moses.
The distinction that Paul saw between faith in Jesus as Messiah and trust in the efficacy of keeping the Law of Moses was transformed later into a dichotomy between faith and good works. For us today, it is important to keep in mind what Paul meant. He experienced a new righteousness poured out in the death of Jesus, a righteousness that superseded the potential for righteousness through performing the actions (works), required by the Law of Moses.
The context in which Paul’s phrase “justified by faith” is most commonly used today is fundamentalist proselytizing. The people who knock on your front door on Saturday mornings ask questions like, “Are you saved?” For them, justification by faith means that eternal salvation is the consequence of “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”
This sort of language, and these concepts, are foreign to Catholics because they are the result of the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. This vocabulary and these concepts would also have been foreign to St. Paul. The various interpretations, over the centuries, of Paul’s words have all strayed from the simple, concrete truth proclaimed by Paul.
There is no conflict between faith and charitable works, but there remains a conflict between faith and self-righteousness. According to Paul, God offers all people the possibility of being rescued from the sin of faithlessness; that possibility becomes a reality when an individual accepts Baptism, and lives a life that emulates the life of Jesus. Justification (or salvation), is not something we attain by our own efforts. Rather, it is something granted to Jesus because of his faithfulness, and something that we enjoy vicariously by our belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Paul’s statement in Romans 5:1 means no more than this; it is a simple statement about the fulfillment of the messianic expectations of Judaism in antiquity.
In concrete terms, this means that the mere performance of religious actions is pointless. The only act that brings forgiveness of sin is the act of living a life that proclaims publicly one’s belief that Jesus is God’s Chosen One. Saying prayers, receiving Sacraments, stringent morals or performing acts of mercy are guarantees of nothing. Our guarantee of salvation is Jesus. Believing in his God-given righteousness gives us a share in his God-given vindication. (Romans 5:1)