Yesterday, I was asked what is meant by justification by faith. This is how I see it, though I am aware this differs from much, if not all, of what is written about this contentious subject.
‘Justification’ is a synonym for ‘having worth’. ‘Faith’ is a synonym for ‘trust’. Justification by faith – the assertion that you can trust your worth – is contrasted with justification by works.
God loves you no matter what. God is God, and has no need of you to do or be anything for God. You have worth (your existence is justified) simply because God has made you, because God is what you are.
It is like my daughters. On my best days, I love them no matter what. Nothing they do can diminish that love; nothing they do can make me love them more. My love for them is not earned; it is a given. They do not have to justify themselves in my eyes by being good or clever or productive or personable. I have faith in them.
That is how God is with you. You are God’s child. God, being God, has no need of you to do or be anything. Nothing you do can diminish God’s love; nothing you do can increase God’s love. God’s love for you is not earned; it is a given. God has faith in you.
Of course, the reality is that unconditional positive regard is almost impossible for humans, and my daughters will learn that my love for them is conditional. They will learn that society makes demands upon them. They must pay Caesar what is due to Caesar. Their worth will become bound up with being good and clever and productive and personable.
You too have learnt that you must demonstrate your worth by being good and clever and productive and personable. You have learnt to measure your worth by your finances and by people’s opinion of you, by your pay grade, exam results and qualifications, pats on the back, professional development, and by preferment. This is justification by works. Or, as Ignatius would say, ‘riches, honour and pride‘. You find your worth in what you do and by the financial and social rewards you get, including the reward of feeling good about the worthy self you have made.
The ever-present danger is that we transfer back onto God this learnt need to prove our worth. We come to think that we have to earn God’s love. Thus God becomes one of the gods, an idol.
But no! God’s thoughts are not your thoughts. You do not have to earn God’s love. You do not have to do or be anything. You are justified, of great worth, in God’s eyes, because you are God’s work, and God has faith in you.
This premise, although continually under attack, is enshrined, albeit implicitly, in our society. The principle is that you will be brought to birth, cared for, fed, housed, given medical attention and hospitality and, finally, buried decently, whether or not you can afford this, whether or not you have earned this, whether or not you have proved your worth, whatever your ability.
And so to prayer.
God has no need of your prayers. You do not pray to get into God’s good books, to learn what God wants of you, and to earn your place in Heaven. That is already given. No, you pray because you need it. You pray so that, bit by bit, God undoes your false belief that you need to prove yourself, and shows you your true worth as a loved child who has already been given everything.